"The Metropolis" by Crystal Gail Shangkuan Koo (7 pages, 2006)
Yesterday I was looking through what is fast becoming one of my favorite web pages for finding short stories to read on line, Short Stories: East of the Web and happily discovered a 2007 prize winning story by a University of the Philippines graduate, Crystal Koo (Manila- 1985) on line as one of the top featured stories. Ms. Koo was raised and educated in Manila schools and is now a professor at a university in Hong Kong. She has won several awards for her writings and is published in several places on line and in print. She is another new to me writer found via East of the Web (the first was Fernando Sorrentino, an Argentine short story writer).
Ms Koo's story, "The Metropolis" is told in the first person by female narrator in her twenties living in Beijing. I do not know if Koo has ever lived in Beijing but the story has an autobiographical feel to it. As the story begins the narrator thinks back to her grandmother who fled Beijing 60 years ago to move to Manila. There is feel of truth in the opening lines it is hard not to respond to about what Manila was once like and what it has now become:
I had flown to China with a postcard in my hand. My grandmother didn't want me to. Why should I go back to the place she had taken so many pains to run away from sixty years ago to get to Manila? The Philippines was glamorous then, before it melted in its own torpor. Europe and America creolized in Asia,Què hora es? A las ocho y media, sir, good morning, how d'ye do, how d'ye do? because the sun never sets in the Western empire. Before I left for the airport, my grandmother told me to be careful in the mud alleys.
The narrator has to face the dilemma in Beijing of looking neither quite Filipino or quite Chinese.
I met my language partners every Friday in the school library, two local girls who wanted to practice their English with me, but they frequently slipped back to Mandarin because there were too many interesting questions to be asked. How can you be Chinese? How can you be Filipino? How can you speak English? You speak Filipino too, right? How do you say, 'How do you do?'
I taught them to say kumusta, simplest thing in the world, contraction of como esta, consonants crunchy and hard, vowels wide and open. Back in the Philippines, some people would be so surprised with my speaking Filipino that they would forget to stop speaking English with me. Would you have to marry a Chinese too? You speak a little Chinese too, right? How do you say, 'How do you do?'
Koo has an acute eye for details that make a world come alive. In one passage I was very much reminded of the story I read last year by Ryunosuke Akutagawa ( one of pre- WWII Japanese masters of the short story), "Mandrians" . In that story an elite man who cannot really see the humanity of the poor has a revelation on a train. Here is Koo's beautiful handling of a thematically similar matter:
I once read in a magazine in Beijing about a man aboard a train who had been accosted by an old woman when the train stopped at a station. Through his window she tried to sell him cold bottles of mineral water, but he didn't want to buy any because he knew she would slink away without giving back his change. As she coaxed him noisily through the window, he grew more and more revolted by her presence until he resigned himself and pulled a note out to buy himself some silence. As she handed him a bottle, the train began to roll. The old woman had his change in one hand and she tried to run after his open window, her arm outstretched.Your change, your change! He was entranced by the sight. In her haste the old woman tripped and fell, and when she raised her head he saw a trickle of blood on her forehead.
There is a world in this passage. To me Koo has a very original direct style. I will be following her work form now on and hope she will go on to write longer works. Like millions of other talented Filipinos she has left the country in order to make best use of her skills and education. In time Koo may well grow to be as good a writer as Akutagawa.
Koo's home page has more information about her and small additional samples of her work.
Thank you for presenting this review, Mel. I will try to read this online soon.
Suko-thanks as always-
Thank you for your kind words! Yes, I have lived in Beijing for a year, and a lot of material in came from that experience and certain issues about cultural belonging. :) More power to your blog!
I loved Ms Koo's "The Startbox," she does indeed write fascinating stories.
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