Thoughts on Writing

A beauty who aged like fine wine

It was the mother of a primary school classmate – a woman of uncommon good looks – who gave me my first inkling of the kind of power female beauty can command: every time she came to school; a sea of heads would turn towards her as she glided through the corridors as though on a burnished throne.

I happened to be friends with her daughter from primary one till upper six, so year after year I was kept in the loop on what was happening in that woman’s life; shopping sprees, marital troubles, divorce, shopping sprees, money troubles. At that time I didn’t know she was simply reenacting the life script typical of many beauties, their predicament perhaps best summed up by Evelyn Nesbit – herself the reigning beauty of the Gilded Age – in a refrain she made towards the end of her life: “you must be wiser and wealthier than most women if you are beautiful. For there is no way to avoid danger if you are beautiful.”

These days, as the west finally begins to comprehend the CCP’s ambition to subjugate the world through infiltration – Newsweek just did a cover story on this topic – I find myself thinking about Nesbits’s observation more often. I know of one beauty – the actress-turned-producer Xia Meng (1933-2016) (夏梦) – who (in the words of the director Ann Hui (许鞍华)) not only was in possession of even more wisdom than beauty. She also developed a seemingly superhuman immunity against CCP’s overtures. I’ve come to conclude that these two characteristics are connected: early in life, having developed self-restraint in not going all-out in capitalizing on her appearance, Xia had a leg up in being resistant to the CCP’s cajoling. Xia’s case can therefore shed light on the extent of the menace the CCP poses for the west: it’s possible that only those who are as strong-willed as Xia can stand their ground against the CCP, and avoid falling victim to what Matthew Pottinger has described as the regime’s “psychological warfare” – being manipulated into believing the CCP’s claim that “we own the future, so make your adjustments now”.

It would have been the most natural thing in the world for Xia to believe in her own greatness. She starred as the female lead in her first film at 17 and became instantly famous. Everywhere she went she must have created the kind of stir once witnessed by the writer Zhang Yihe (章诒和), who was a teenager in the 1950s attending a theatre performance in Beijing held for CCP dignitaries when she spotted Xia heading for her seat in the stalls: “there was a huge commotion when she came in. She was wearing a red coat and gold earrings. Breathtaking!”

Xia coolness in not allowing success to go to her head can be seen in her choice of spouse. Among the horde of suitors who tried to win her heart with gifts and flattery, she chose an ordinary businessman who distinguished himself by his willingness to point out her faults in acting and dress.

Xia’s level-headedness stood her in good stead when fortune no longer smiled on her. As the Cultural Revolution approached, her studio, formerly run by cultivated artists who took the communist cause as gospel, were overtaken by slogan-chanting political opportunists. They forced everyone in the studio to take part in street demonstrations. This was a crucial juncture in Xia’s life and she had to make the right call. She declined being used as a propaganda tool and fled to Canada instead.

She returned to Hong Kong a couple of years later. To support herself and her family she founded a garment factory. When asked didn’t she go back to the studio, she replied, “I’m not regarded as rich in Hong Kong, but I’m also unwilling to do what I dislike. I’d choose a simple lifestyle and clear conscience any day.”

A decade was to pass before she would return to the film industry. When the Cultural Revolution ended and the liberal-minded cultural figures she had admired got reinstated by the CCP, they asked her to do films again; they needed her know-how and fame to revive the international community’s interest in Chinese films. Xia said yes, but only on the condition that they let her be an independent producer – she wanted freedom from CCP interference when choosing film topics.

She sold her garment factory and used the proceeds to launch her production company.

Two of the handful of films she ended up making – “Boat People” (投奔怒海)and “Homecoming” (似水流年)- won accolades both locally and abroad. They were box office successes too. Fortune smiled on her again.

Towards the end of her life, when asked why she stopped acting so soon and why she hadn’t gone on to produce more films, Xia said her motto was “leave something on the table” (见好就收). Compare her mode of operation with that of the Hong Kong government’s, a.k.a CCP puppet. In depleting the power vested its office (有权用尽)by (among other things) ransacking the common law for archaic statutes that would give it the pretext to prosecute protesters, the government is acting like a beauty hollowing out the advantages her face offers her like there’s no tomorrow. Both will crash and burn, and never in my life have I found the arbitrary hand of fate so unnerving: some of us will be collateral damage, while others, like Xia, will be around long enough to see the tides turn in their favour.

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