For me, the story of Sai Jinhua begins on a summery day in Shanghai. It is the final day of a trip I very much fear will be the last one that I and my husband will take with our two sons, both of whom are poised to leave on journeys that are suddenly, although hardly unexpectedly, becoming their own next chapters.
We are in China—and not in India, Vietnam or Peru, all of which were discussed as alternative destinations. China is my trip, mostly. I’ve lived in Singapore and Taiwan; I’ve studied Mandarin. I’ve always wanted to go to the mainland. The men in my life agreed to indulge me.
On this final day, we are in Shanghai’s Yu Garden overlooking the famous Jiu Qu Bridge that—with its nine zigzag turns—was built to confuse evil spirits trying to cross the lotus pool. I overhear a tour guide talking—talking—talking, and he is a droning irritant until he mentions the 19th-century Chinese courtesan who traveled to Europe as the young concubine-wife of one of China’s first diplomats. I am suddenly interested. He says that she is very famous in China. I know nothing more than this about the person I will come to call “my girl.” I don’t catch her name, or know that she may have been a Chinese heroine in a distant past when China and the West were clumsily, violently getting acquainted—or that some people say she was a traitor, a woman of ill-repute and loose morals who collaborated with the forces of imperialist western invaders.
"What was it like in 1887 for a young woman to leave her home in China and go to a Europe that was strange and disorienting and fabulous?"
Standing there at the edge of the Jiu Qu Bridge and knowing almost nothing about Sai Jinhua, memory leads me to a time and place in my own life when I traveled to the far side of the world, to Singapore, which was and still is a fascinating, multicultural place, a place that is exotic and loud and pungent and delicious—and was also hugely alienating to a young girl from the West. I remember watching life unfold in the streets of Singapore, and in the markets, and in sights, sounds and smells that seeped through the open windows of colonial-era buildings. I remember people everywhere—all with faces not like mine.
Now, all these years later as I hear for the first time about this famous Chinese courtesan, I wonder, what was it like in 1887 for a young woman to leave her home in China and go to a Europe that was strange and disorienting and fabulous—where people all had faces not like hers? So I say to my one-in-a-million husband, if I were going to write a book—which of course I am not because it just is not something I would ever do—this would be the story I would like to tell. And right there by the Jiu Qu Bridge, he turns to me and says, well, why not? Why don’t you try?
These are the first of many improbable things that conspire to turn a tour guide’s fleeting remarks into a novel called The Courtesan. Returning home, I begin to work at learning to write, and to read everything I can find about Jinhua and her era. Chance throws many happy opportunities my way. I join a writer’s group with people who are both talented and supportive of my story. My eldest son moves to Suzhou, China, where I visit him and find, quite by accident, the very house at Number 29 Xuan Qiao Alley, where Sai Jinhua lived with her scholar-diplomat husband. Reading the “bones” of her true story, I find more places in my own story that fit together with hers in fictional ways that are magical to me. For her European odyssey, I decide to place Jinhua and her husband in Vienna, a city where I have spent much time and where I have strong family ties. Researching places for them to live, my mother suggests the Palais Kinsky. It is a place I know well; I studied there for a year—and met my husband there. I later learn that during the early 20th century, the Chinese embassy was actually located in the Kinsky for a number of years.
History drops other tidbits into my lap. Fabulous, true-to-life characters who populated the places Jinhua inhabits in my novel, who might have met her, who have amazing stories of their own: the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, who with her fascination for beautiful women would have adored meeting a beautiful, exotic creature from China; Edmund Backhouse, a true eccentric, a brilliant man with profound flaws and more than a touch of evil genius—who lurked in Peking at the time of the Boxer Rebellion and could have been acquainted with Jinhua; Kobelkoff, a man who had enormous physical challenges, who was put on display in Vienna’s Prater for people’s amusement (a common form of popular entertainment at the time)—who clicked perfectly into place as a reminder of Jinhua’s fictional dead father.
Slowly, gradually, Jinhua became a person I knew. She became a person with flaws and vulnerabilities and strengths—and very human relationships. At the same time, the history of her era was fascinating to me, both in its own right and as a context for our modern era. I hope that I have in some small way managed to co-mingle the historically real with what I have imagined and what I myself have experienced in a way that will give readers of The Courtesan a sense of what it was for Sai Jinhua to travel from East to West and back again, and a sense, too, through her eyes, of China’s history with the West.
Born in Canada, Alexandra Curry has lived in the United States, Europe and Asia, and her globetrotting days contribute depth to the various settings depicted in The Courtesan, her debut novel. A graduate of Wellesley College, she now lives in Atlanta with her family.