The Story behind the Story
Amy Tan's inspiration for The Valley of Amazement originated at a visit to The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, where she stumbled upon an academic book with a BW photo of courtesans - "a class of women who were influential in introducing Western popular culture to Shanghai" (read between those words). The 1910 photo was captioned: "The Ten Beauties of Shanghai." She was stunned - these women were wearing clothing specific to the trade, identical to those in her favorite photo of her grandmother.
She later found out that "no women other than courtesans went to Western photo studios. My grandmother's photo had been taken in just such a place." Her grandmother was twenty-one in 1910. Tan's imaginings of what it would have been like for her grandmother had she been a courtesan in that time ( she was unable to determine the truth of it ) became the impetus for this novel.
Fans of Amy Tan love her novels because she draws from her own rich family history, with strong female characters often framed in a mother-daughter theme blended with China's history and myth. The Valley of Amazement is that kind of novel, and so much more.
This novel spans four decades from the turn of the 20th century Shanghai to isolated Mood Pond Village deeply set in the mountains to San Francisco, telling the story of three generations of women.
In 1897, Lucretia (Lulu) Minturn, sixteen and pregnant by a Chinese artist, escapes her strictly conventional Western parents to the excitement of Shanghai, only to find that the life she expects there is an illusion. She quickly sets herself up as the American Madam of "Hidden Jade Path" which fast becomes the city's most prestigious, highest-class courtesan house.* She provides her own illusions, an amazing masked world of desire, love and escape. Lulu has her daughter in 1898 - Violet, who will be torn by her half- American, half -Chinese breeding.
"Violet" in Asian culture symbolizes ambiguity and ambivalence by its very nature - it is positioned between red and blue, can be variably mixed one way or the other, is therefore uncertain with no clear identity. Violet struggles to find that balance, the universal harmony between the red and the blue ( the yin and yang, respectively).
"I recognized too clearly the signs of my unknown father; my slightly rounded nose, the tipped-up nostrils, the fat below my eyebrows, the smooth roundness of my forehead, the plump cheeks and lips. My mother had none of these features... So this was why my mother had no special affection for me anymore. The Chinese part of my Chinese father was spreading across my face like a stain. If she hated him enough to wish he did not exist, she must feel the same about me."
As much as Violet suffers identity crisis, so does Shanghai. From the Boxer Rebellion, the decades-old International Settlement Treaty - by which the British, the Americans, the Germans and Japanese, et al. controlled Shanghai - to the abdication of Emperor Puyi and the dissolution of the Ching Dynasty in 1912, Shanghai became a port city represented by many foreign faces. The city and Violet seem fatefully linked. This is an inauspicious period for Violet - as the Imperial dynasty collapses, as rebellious crowds revolt in the streets chanting "down with the foreign!", Violet is lost to her mother, marking the worst turning point of her young life - being "trafficked" as a virgin courtesan.
Fifty Shades of Violet
Violet is sold as a virgin courtesan, her "defloration" is auctioned to the highest bidder.
Her life as a courtesan would spiral up and down, as Shanghai goes through her own decadent and decayed periods. She is forcibly separated from her baby daughter, Flora, and is reduced further by exploitation. She chances leaving Shanghai for the promise of wholesome life in Moon Pond nestled between two mountains - the magical life she imagined from the painting "Valley of Amazement", only to find that that also is an illusion - the dream turns to nightmare. She is warned that "women kill themselves in places like that because there's no other way to escape."
The brutality that she suffers was hard to read, but I felt this was imperative to the novel. Violet draws her strength from hitting rock bottom. She modifies her viewpoint, turns her life around and looks to find the missing part of her.
Tan's depiction of the courtesan world is mesmerizing, sometimes bawdy, sometimes violent and gut-wrenchingly tragic. It is a well plotted effort not to glorify the world of sex trade: rather to show that it is a business built on providing a pleasure haven, a dream escape, a fantasy world for Shanghai's wealthy Western and Chinese businessmen, while dually existing as a degrading exploitation of women, with a vast scope of consequences that sometimes end tragically. She clearly depicts the profession as one that many young women were victimized and forced into, whether it was due to human trafficking or the most basic human need for survival.
Tan's artful weaving of love, duality and search for identity veiled in shadows of illusions and elusiveness, balances the violent reality of the sex trade - a notable attribute that sets this novel incomparably apart from others in the same genre. For Violet, when the shadows dissolve and the picture is clearer, she could separate the beautiful (the illusion) from the beastly ( the cruelty) and find harmony in her own dual nature.
Shanghai Courtesan life early 1900s
* A place where rich and powerful businessmen met to make deals and discuss agendas, be entertained in high fashion, de-stress from their problems and fears. High-class courtesans were described in titillating detail by their beauty, their romantic liaisons with the city's rich and powerful, their ability to engage in financial strategizing at the expense of the customer. Courtesans were said to be singers and storytellers. They were commonly referred to as sing-song girls; They often regarded themselves as skilled entertainers rather than providers of sexual services. They prided themselves on selling their voices rather than their bodies. Beautiful to look at and listen to, they were cultivated women showcased in their exquisitely appointed settings who could sing, compose poetry and converse with wit. It was a picture perfect world of women with a great deal of room to choose their own companions, arrange their own working conditions, though obviously in many constraints living lives of occasional poverty but not serious material deprivation.
(aside research from The Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol.3,No.2, Oct. 1992, Courtesans and Streetwalkers by Gail Hershatter).