Chiang Ching is a woman of stories.
She left mainland China when she was 16. At 17, Chiang was in Taiwan and acted in her first film, A Maid from Heaven (《七仙女》). I was nine years old then. My neighbour and I squeezed our way into an old cinema at Sanchong District in Taipei to catch the movie, standing the entire time. I love watching movies. I admire beautiful movie celebrities. As I watched the seven female celestials descend to earth in clouds, I was extremely envious of them. The female actress who acted as the seventh celestial was Chiang. She seemed to belong to the clouds up above, somewhere I could never reach.
The gorgeous Xi Shi has come to visit!
I was a first-grader in middle school when she acted in Xi Shi (《西施》). Xi Shi was quite the blockbuster of its time. It boasted of epic war scenes and magnificent palace embellishments. Moreover, it was directed by the renowned movie director, Li Han-hsiang. It was a sensational movie in Taiwan during the early 60s; every student had to catch it.
Half a century later, I can still vividly remember many scenes from the film: Xi Shi’s entrance in the film was already a spectacle; she appeared by the river, poised, and elegantly holding on to her mesh skirt. Or when Xi Shi met King Fuchai of Wu for the first time, gently grimacing with her hand cupping her breast due to a heartache condition. Not forgetting Xi Shi’s seductive dance at the stairway of Xiangdie Lang (响碟廊, a cymbal-filled corridor in the palace King Fuchai built for Xi Shi. The cymbals would ring at Xi Shi’s every dance move), and finally, Xi Shi’s utter heartbreak when she learnt of King Fuchai’s death.
Chiang was the star of her time. She was amused when Liu Chia-chang (刘家昌, songwriter and movie director) brought her to have beef noodles at the alley near National Taiwan University. She found it romantic when Liu proposed to her with a TWD$80 (S$3.50) ring. She married Liu at the peak of her career.
She got married at 20, and divorced when she was 24. That happened in 1970. News of her divorce plastered newspapers and made headlines, as if to match up to her fame. Until now, the picture of a teary-eyed Liu carrying their four-year-old son while dashing out of a press conference remains crystal clear in my mind. Chiang stayed silent through it all. She disappeared quietly, as if vanished into thin air. There was no news of her ever again.
In 1978, a friend and I were travelling in New York with Black Sect Esoteric Buddhism Grandmaster, Lin Yun (林云). One morning, I was awakened by the doorbell of my hotel room. Still in a daze, I went to answer the door: isn’t this the seventh celestial who descended to earth? The gorgeous Xi Shi has come to visit! I couldn’t believe my eyes and asked, “Are you Chiang Ching?” She smiled and nodded. She was here to look for Grandmaster Lin. As we waited for Lin to come over from the room next door, I sat there dumbfounded, not knowing what to say. She broke the silence and asked for my surname. “Lin,” I replied. “Are you Lin Yun’s younger sister?” Chiang asked, bemused. “No, I’m Lin Ching-hsia.” It suddenly struck Chiang and she apologised profusely. She was 32 then, and already an outstanding modern dancer. I was 24, and had been a movie actress for seven years.
Many years passed before we would meet again. Until then, she was already in her 60s, and I was in my 50s. Lung Ying-tai’s (龙应台, Taiwanese essayist and cultural critic) was to hold a talk by Lo Ta-yu (罗大佑, Taiwanese singer and songwriter) at the University of Hong Kong. Ying-tai informed me that Chiang will be there and I jumped at the opportunity of meeting her again. That would be our second meeting. We spoke more and built rapport with each other. From then on, we kept in contact.
I am deeply stirred by her longing for her husband
Life has a funny way of working out. We were actresses before and now we’re both writers. Coincidentally, our articles are often published on Apple Daily’s Sunday column, Under the Apple Tree, and Mingpao Monthly. We’ve already read each other’s articles through email correspondence before they got published.
Chiang is an advocate of artistic creation as a movie actress, dancer, and author. Even at 70 years old, she remains hard working and has been ceaselessly writing. She’s already published multiple essay collections, and even wrote a biographical novel of her dance teacher, titled Eileen. Recently, she’s into scriptwriting and hopes they can one day be featured on the big screen. I remarked that she’s like an ascetic, slogging her guts out to achieve all that she’s achieved. She said she’s like a washboard, her accomplishments an accumulation of every little scrub she’s put her heart to.
She’s also met many outstanding entrepreneurs, artists, and scholars. What amazes me is that the majority of the celebrities we casually talked about are her long-time friends. She’s a storyteller, and I’m a listener. Anecdotes about these VIPs come alive at the nib of her pen. I thoroughly enjoyed her commentary about the young Li Ao’s (李敖, Taiwanese writer, social and political commentator, and historian) youthful and carefree days, and how he survived without a penny in his pocket. I laughed my head off when she wrote about scholar Hsia Chih-tsing’s (夏志清, Chinese literary critic, and scholar) naivety, humour and hearty demeanour: once, while Chiang was fully focused on her dance performance, a resounding “Bravo!” that came from Hsia Chih-tsing in the audience shocked her so much that she forgot her next dance step!
But bliss is ephemeral. Birger died of illness (in 2008) and Chiang devoted her time to writing, publishing five books as a result.
At the tenth anniversary of Chiang’s second husband, Birger Blomback’s death, she wrote a memoir, Looking Back (《回望》), detailing how they met and spent their lives together. Birger was a Swedish scientist. When they first met at a friend’s house, Birger taught Chiang how to pronounce his name: by combining “beer” and “ear”. She then shared with him her observations about the Swedish society while she was on a tour in Sweden. Both left a deep impression on each other, and this was how the seventh celestial and Xi Shi ended up outside my hotel room in New York: they were getting married but the failed marriage with Liu brought her so much pain that she still shuddered at the thought of marriage, and wanted to have Grandmaster Lin Yun help her out.
Grandmaster Lin remarked that he could offer her solutions, but she wouldn’t be able to do it. He taught her to always step out of a plane with her left foot first, but just as she was about to disembark, the people behind her rushed forward and she couldn’t remember which foot left the aircraft first. She thought to herself, “This is easy, I just have to remember the next time.” They registered their marriage at the Embassy of Sweden in Portugal. Coincidentally, the Swedish ambassador was Birger’s friend, and while they were happily greeting one another, Chiang again forgot which foot stepped into the embassy first.
Regardless of whether it was her left foot or right foot, it is apparent in her writings that her second marriage was a blissful one. They had one son, and the family of three lived on a small, private Swedish island. Birger liked to fish. Although he was a scientist of blood coagulation by profession, his fishing equipment and fishing skills could match up to that of the professional fishermen.
But bliss is ephemeral. Birger died of illness (in 2008) and Chiang devoted her time to writing, publishing five books as a result. 2018 marked Birger’s tenth death anniversary. Chiang wrote Looking Back in loving memory of her husband. Living in isolation on the island for a long time, Chiang’s thoughts ran wild: “I look up and I see a bird. Is Birger here to visit me? I look down and I see crashing waves. Is Birger here to speak to me? I close my eyes and a gust of wind blows at me. Is Birger gently caressing my hair? I know it can’t be.”
I am deeply stirred by Chiang’s longing for her husband.
There is a huge stone used as a tabletop on the island. It was a table that witnessed many happy moments the both of them shared. It is Birger’s tombstone now.
We started our adventure making two silly mistakes
Chiang then began to use WeChat, and we were able to stay in touch. She was in Sweden and I was in Hong Kong. We would always chat till the wee hours of the night. She would be scriptwriting on her laptop with a glass of wine, while I would be reading and underlining the book I had on hand, scribbling along the way. We chatted in between pauses, oftentimes till it was way past midnight in Sweden, and daybreak in Hong Kong, before we went to bed.
Chiang wanted to visit Xiamen, Gulangyu, Kinmen and Wuyi Mountain. “Okay, I’ll follow,” I said. She wanted to take the high-speed rail to Xiamen. “Okay, I’ll take that too,” I chimed. She asked me to travel alone to Xiamen by train. “I’ll bring my bodyguards along,” I said. “No!”, she commanded, instead offering to come to Hong Kong to travel together with me. Actually, I didn’t know anything about the places we were about to visit. I only wanted to travel with Chiang; whatever she says, I’ll do. She wanted to stay at Judy Ongg’s (翁倩玉, Taiwanese-Japanese singer, actress, and writer) old house, so I brought along my towel and toothbrush. My friends alerted me that the weather will be very warm, and bugs and mosquitoes will be everywhere, so they gave me mini fans and suggested I bring along mosquito repellent. I didn’t think much, I only wanted to travel with Chiang.
25 July, the day of our adventure. One of us was 64, and the other, 73. We brought along three luggage; the 73-year-old lugged two of them as if they were featherlight, walking at the speed of light, the 64-year-old lugged the remaining one, following closely behind, navigating through multiple gantries. Alas, we reached the train station only to see the train doors shut in our faces. We watched helplessly as the train chugged past; boy, was it a punctual train! There was no other direct train to Xiamen that day and we could only travel to Shenzhen first for a transfer. We didn’t know if there’d still be tickets left and even had to exit Shenzhen before we could buy them. At that point, we could only play by ear. Finally, we got on the train to Shenzhen, exhausted and hardly even catching our breaths. A man with a hand luggage walked towards us. He recognised me and said he was just watching my movie on his flight. This good Samaritan took our problems upon himself, checking if we could book our tickets online, leading the way while we were exiting, and found us the ticketing station. He only left us after ensuring everything was in good order.
I’ve never been to Xiamen. The closest I’ve been, was when my teacher brought us to Kinmen when I was still a student, and we looked through the binoculars, peering at Xiamen farmers working in the fields. On this trip to Xiamen, the city has become modernised and more environmentally friendly. Trees filled both sides of the sidewalks and not a single piece of litter could be found. Did I mention that the food was also good?
It was pitch-black outside, and there was only us, and the house. “Seems like we can only sleep in the living room,” I lamented.
At night, Chiang’s friend, painter Wu Qian, thoughtfully arranged an extremely private place for us to stay at. The car entered through a big gate, travelling in the middle of tall trees and grass fields lighted by quaint street lamps. Quite a distance later, the house came into sight and was on our right. The living room was on the second floor, equipped with two big rooms on each side. A small empty room by the living room was for any butler who came along with us. After our bath, we changed into our pyjamas and were ready to relax with the red wine Wu had prepared for us.
Just as we walked out of our room, the door slammed shut, locking our room cards inside. The living room didn’t have a phone and our mobile phones were in the rooms. It was pitch-black outside, and there was only us, and the house. “Seems like we can only sleep in the living room,” I lamented. We somehow found our way downstairs, and there sat a cream-coloured phone. I grabbed the phone as if my life depended on it. Fortunately, someone answered. “Hello? Our room cards are locked in our rooms,” I admitted. We started our adventure making two silly mistakes, and the day ended with laughter.
If only Xu Xian could appear
Gulangyu is an interesting little island. There were no cars on the island and many of the holiday villas left behind by the wealthy became tourist attractions. Also known as the “Island of Music” or the “Piano Island”, Gulangyu is the birthplace of many well-known pianists. Legend has it that pianos could be heard playing in the houses at dusk.
The Fengdong Rock in Dongshan, Zhangzhou is a bigger spectacle. Two enormous rocks are balanced on top of each other on a contact point that is merely a palm-size large. The rocks move with the wind but never topple, a natural wonder that’s also earned its name of being one of the most amazing rocks in the world. Excitedly, I took a photo with Chiang in front of the massive rocks.
My deepest impression of Kinmen came from the Beishan Broadcast Wall. Multiple loudspeakers are positioned to face Xiamen, broadcasting Teresa Teng’s heartfelt speech to mainland China, followed by her melodious songs. While listening to Teng’s broadcast and songs, Chiang and I reminisced our interactions with Teng, and our trip to Kinmen.
Wuyi Mountain is a scenic city of mountains and waters. The tour guide said there are 200,000 inhabitants in the city and the ratio of humans to snakes is one to five. “Does that mean there are 1 million snakes here then?”, I mused. Of course, there were snake dishes on the dining table, not to mention Wuyi Mountain specialty, the Dahongpao tea. We ate to our hearts’ content and were stuffed. My friends suggested we go for a stroll. I heard a few thunder claps but didn’t bother with it. Alas, it started to pour after awhile. Caught off guard, we hurriedly looked for a hiding place and found one under a roof.
As we stood at the foot of Wuyi Mountain watching the rain, we saw the silvery moon in the sky, veiled by the downpour. It was very romantic, poetic, even. I almost wanted to compose a poem but didn’t want to embarrass myself. I only knew the character “qing” is present in both our names, I was wearing white, we were sharing an umbrella, and standing on a grass field that was probably home to dozens of snakes. I whispered into Chiang’s ear, “If only Xu Xian (mortal man who fell in love with snake demon, Bai Niangzi) could appear right now.”
People who’ve been to Wuyi Mountain have told me that if one didn’t scale the highest peak, the trip would be in vain. But, they also said that whoever scales the mountain would be a fool. It was a hot summer day in July, with a blistering heat of 38 degrees Celsius. Wu didn’t want us to be fools, so he arranged for a sedan chair that would bring us up the Heavenly Tour Peak (天游峰). Before long, I asked to come down from the sedan chair to scale the peak myself.
Many years ago, I climbed the Paro Taktsang in Bhutan and realised the journey to our destinations is akin to our life journeys: no matter how tough it is, how soaked our clothes and pants, we had to strive forward. As we scaled the peak, tourists who were descending the peak eyed my backpack that was left on the sedan chair. “That’s a comfortable backpack enjoying its ride!”, they casually remarked. Chiang had a bad knee and it was beyond her to climb the mountain. She sat on the sedan chair the whole time, feeling incredibly apologetic toward her carriers. My carriers were also feeling bad that I refused to sit on the sedan chair.
We finally reached the peak and breathed in the freshest air, admiring the most magnificent mountains around us. We were literally on top of the world. Unable to contain our joy, Chiang and I broke into a spontaneous red fan dance. When we descended the mountain, our tour guide declared that I climbed a total of 6000 stairs to and fro. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t even manage to climb up slopes or take the stairs on regular days. Where did I get the energy to scale 6000 stairs?
Chiang and I toured many places of interest, witnessing the full glory of the mountains and waters on our adventure to mainland China. We did many things we’ve never dreamt of doing and it was a really enriching trip. But, the most important thing was the company I had.
I stood in awe of her blinding elegance
Chiang loves to have a glass of wine before she sleeps, making it the best time for me to join her in her room to listen to her stories. Donned in a long, flowy cotton yarn dress, her poised movements when she turns to pour a glass of wine deeply mesmerised me. She is a fairy indeed. She didn’t have to say much—her naturally-curly grey hair, the wrinkles on her face, and that pair of ballet dancing legs that have weathered more than a decade of training—all have their own stories to tell.
I often wonder why her circumstances have not drowned her in mental illness. Perhaps she found her outlet in her artistic creations, expressing her sorrows and misery through her dance.
Chiang is always smiling. When she recounts her misery, she laughs an empty laugh that is absolutely heartbreaking to hear. When she recounts her happiness, she laughs a sweet laughter oozing with warmth, infecting people with her joy. It’s as if she’s arranged her stories into frames, each writing an essay or painting a picture of its own, inviting you into her world. While it is understandable for celebrities to speak in a restrained manner, Chiang is always open with me. However, there are also times when she chose not to speak, taking all the pain and misery she’s endured for the past century upon her own shoulders.
As a mother, I completely understand how painful it must have been to be separated from her young son of the first marriage. This pain is made apparent in Chiang’s chapter about her longing for her son in Gone with the Music (《曲终人不见》). This is her biggest regret, and I can only offer small words of consolation hoping to alleviate some of her pain. I often wonder why her circumstances have not drowned her in mental illness. Perhaps she found her outlet in her artistic creations, expressing her sorrows and misery through her dance.
The beauty she exudes comes from the years she spent on stage and her lifetime of stories to tell.
On the 50th anniversary of the Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan, she specially flew back to Taipei from Sweden as an award presenter. Although she had the biggest distance to cover, her air ticket was the cheapest, which came as a shock to the organisers. Chiang had taken the economy class. “What’s so surprising about that? I’ve always flown in economy class!”, she declared, only willing to spend her every penny on creative work. She admitted that in her personal life, she has never dyed her hair, nor went for a manicure. It is hard to believe that this simple and plain woman sitting right in front of me is actually a celebrity and dancer. I looked at my perfectly manicured fingers and a head of black hair, not knowing what to say.
I went to Chiang’s room on the last night of our adventure. There she was, sitting gracefully on the couch, a glass of red wine in hand. The beauty she exudes comes from the years she spent on stage and her lifetime of stories to tell. I stood in awe of her blinding elegance. Although I’ve been an actress half my life, I still suffer from stage fright. On our last night together, I had to steal a few tips from her. I asked her to teach me the most beautiful entrances and exits I can make on stage. She stood up immediately, spreading out her arms, gracefully trotting from the door to the center of the room. She then placed both arms on her chest, looked down, and smiled. “Oh, so trotting is the secret?”, I curiously pointed out. To exit, face the audience, take a bow and move back gracefully before turning to leave. “Oh, that’s how you make an exit?”, I diligently noted.
It was late, and she was to fly to Beijing the following day to chase her movie dream, Eileen, while I was to return to my home in Hong Kong.
We hugged, and I closed her room door behind me.
(The article’s standfirst was added by ThinkChina)