It has been quite a while since I received a letter from Sister
Sunny; it’s hard not to feel concerned. It isn’t that I have any
deep feelings for her, though I always unexpectedly think of her
at unusual moments. I wonder, sometimes, if there isn’t something
peculiar about this. Every time I think of it, I am again
disturbed for several minutes.
Sister Sunny’s family is related to ours on my mother’s
side. It isn’t that close a blood kinship, but the heads of the two
families went through great hardships together during the Sino-
Japanese War and became really good friends. After the war
they happened to work for the same organization, so they decided
that they might as well live together. For almost three years,
Sister Sunny and I lived under the same roof of a typical south
China three-row building of the old days. Their family lived in the left chamber of the back row, and we lived in the right chamber
of the same row. Altogether six families lived in the same
house, but it was somewhat different from the helter-skelter
compounds of the poor in the north. Although strapped for cash,
each of the families managed to maintain a measure of
respectability. During that turbulent time of price fluctuations
and inflation, life was indeed tough for the salaried class. But
back then the flames of civil war were still looming on the distant
horizon, and hopes brought by the victory in the war were,
though dimming, still flickering, so the days in this three-row
traditional residence maintained, at least in my childhood memory,
an atmosphere of joy and peacefulness.
Every evening, Sister Sunny’s father, Uncle Yuan, would
take out his huqin and flute from a cloth bag, and, in the courtyard
between the second and third row, sit on a bamboo chair
that had the color of a heavy smoker’s fingers, changing the
bamboo membrane and adjusting the strings and cords.
Sometimes he would play “Geese Alighting on the Sandbank,”
and sometimes “Partridges Flying.” When he was in a good
mood, he would get Sister Sunny to sing in front of everyone,
either “The Convict Su San Being Delivered,” or “Farewell to
My Concubine.” The neighbors who hadn’t gone to the movies
or were not playing mahjong would all bring a chair or bench
and sit around, drinking hot tea or nibbling nuts, and an extempore
evening party would begin. Uncle Yuan was the band, and
sister Sunny the star singer. In the surrounding shadows, the
children were enjoying secret puppy love affairs and the adults
celebrating the good times.
In that alley of ours, there were at least a dozen of boys,
from eight to eighteen, who all fell in love with Sister Sunny.
Sister Sunny was a natural. When she sang the Peking opera, her clear and crisp yet slightly trembling falsetto treble,
emanating from such a slim chest, was enough to make a man’s
heart ache. But once she changed the pitch and sang Zhou Xuan
and Bai Guang, suddenly it was as if the poor villages and rundown
alleys several hundred miles away from Shanghai were
filled with all the razzle and dazzle of the neon nights in the
glamorous city’s foreign concessions.
Sister Sunny’s skin was as white and tender as a baby’s, her
two pigtails were silken and shiny, and her looks were a cross
between Chen Juanjuan and Li Lihua. In the eyes of our gang
who were secretly in love with her, sooner or later she was going
to be recruited by the Star Motion Picture Company and would
certainly become famous in the whole wide world.
In 1948, my father found a job, and our family moved to
Taiwan. Before we left, Father did a good thing.
Uncle Yuan was the kind of person who didn’t work but
lived off pawning his family’s antiques and paintings. When his
daughter got older, it was quite natural that he began to think of
lessening the family’s burden. So, with my father as a matchmaker,
he married Sister Sunny to the son of a local aristocrat.
The wedding was lively and full of pomp and fanfare. Except us
silly boys whose infatuation was unrequited, everyone spoke
glowingly of it. The daughter of a nouveau pauvre married into
a wealthy country gentry’s family among whose ancestors were
imperial officials. Needless to say, Uncle Yuan was extremely
It has been forty years since we parted, and for almost forty
years there has hardly been a shadow of Sister Sunny in my
In 1987, three months before the marshal law in Taiwan
was lifted, I went through a great deal of trouble to arrange for Father to visit his old hometown, see relatives and offer sacrifices
to our ancestors, so that his biggest wish in life could be
It was a typical sultry summer day of southern China, I
remember, when we arrived at our old hometown. Father’s triumphant
return created quite a stir in the village. As soon as he
stepped out of the house, ....