Skeleton Women, by multitalented musician, artist, and author Mingmei Yip, prompts a number of associations and comparisons. The title refers to Chinese courtesans in Shanghai in the 1930’s, and the inference is to their ability to extract all they can get from a wealthy patron. It is a bold and brutal term, “skeleton women” —bringing to mind someone greedily eating a chicken and sucking out the marrow of the bones, reducing the hapless patron to a skeleton. But don’t’ be too quick to feel indignant on the patron’s part. The patrons here are ruthless gangsters and there is little tenderness or romance in the relationship. Sexual favors, money, prestige, and simple survival for the skeleton woman if successful— death if she fails to meet the gangster’s terms.
I was greatly intrigued. Could the term skeleton woman be comparable to the Japanese geisha? There is an association but much in the commercial sexual arena has changed in China, while much has been preserved in Japan. As author Mingmei Yip tells us, the traditional Chinese courtesan no longer exists; although the tradition goes back to the time of Confucius, at its height, the jueji was beautiful and talented, trained in music and dance. But she, like the geisha, survived only as long as her beauty and charm could entice her patron.
Skeleton Woman falls firmly into the “category romance” part of the book world. But it might just as easily fall into the spy novel category. This jueji or “skeleton woman” Camilla of 1930’s Shanghai is far more than a courtesan and musician and songstress; she is a spy. And a contortionist. Literally, as well as figuratively. She is very clever. And always on her guard. And lethal if threatened. So this is a spy novel as well as a treatise on the arts of seduction.
Here are the rules that our Chinese heroine Camilla “Heavenly Songstress” and spy follows in order to survive. No, it’s not a lovely poem she has written or song she has practiced, although she shares those elsewhere in the book and they are charming. The rules are much more surprising and at the same time follow a tradition many will recall from TV shows.
It is impossible to be swayed by the seeming romance of it all, once you’ve seen this list. (Note: #15—the key to all of this.)
1. Practice the Dao of deception. The Art of War: Warfare is deception.
2. Miss nothing. Pay attention to details. They may be secret codes.
3. Keep everything a secret.
4. Wear down your target.
5. Show no emotion.
6. Learn to read lips and understand gestures.
7. Write in code.
8. Never keep a diary and burn your garbage every day.
9. Only stay in places with more than one exit.
10. Develop a photographic memory.
11. Learn the art of manipulation. The best way to destroy a person is to first destroy his mind.
12. Blend in with the Shanghai social scene.
13. Stay calm in the midst of danger and chaos.
14. Wait for the right moment.
15. Live in fear. Fear motivates and concentrates the mind—for a spy it might be the fear of having to kill someone and even more the fear of being tortured or killed one self.
This list on how a young and beautiful contortionist concubine can survive in a highly hostile environment is strongly reminiscent of Burn Notice spy star Michael Weston’s blow by blow accounts of how to blow a safe or explode a car or rewire a computer or extract information from a target. Well, they’re both spies!
Mingmei Yip’s website, which provides the reader with the footnotes to all her books, gives us a comprehensive explanation of the role of Chinese courtesans: “In almost all cultures, some women had to `sell their smile’ – actually their entire body. ….While most faced a tragic end as their smiles became wrinkled, or at best became Buddhist nuns, a few miraculously transformed themselves into noblewomen and even empresses.
“Most of these women were born into privilege yet lost it through ill fortune…. A ruined family might be faced with the stark choice between selling a daughter or starvation. …China had no social safety net. For most of these fallen women, there was little hope. Yet a determined and resourceful few manipulated the system to attain positions of power and respect.
“This tradition, [of the geisha] and even its name, came from China, and the geisha still survives.”… But in China, despite the claims of Mao Zedong to have eliminated prostitution, only the culture was eliminated. “Today in China what are left are jinu, prostitutes who sell only their bodies, perhaps not even a smile.”
The Japanese geisha, a “woman of art” whose tradition harkens back several centuries ago, has not yet died out. “There is currently no western equivalent for a geisha—they are truly the most impeccable form of Japanese art.” —Kenneth Champeon, The Floating World.
The geisha culture still exists: women are trained and paid to host and entertain men, although their numbers are far fewer. There is no more real common ground between the modern Japanese geisha and the skeleton woman of the 1930‘s, except that both are dependent on male patrons for survival. No Medicare, Medicaid, disability, unemployment. Work or you don’t eat.
But despite this racy description, some skeleton women were much more than trained entertainers and sexual partners. Mingmei Yip calls them “femme fatales.” She says, “My story is about three of them — Camilla, the nightclub singer who has been forced to become a spy, Shadow, the magician who jumps naked off a tall building, and a gender-ambiguous gossip columnist. All must scheme in order to survive the gang wars in lawless 1930’s Shanghai.” But the center of the story is Camilla, who was found in an orphanage (she is only 19) and trained in education and espionage, and in music.—and whose natural stamping grounds is the Shanghai nightclub, a hot spot for legitimate and illegitimate business.
“The protagonist Camilla’s mission is to seduce Shanghai’s most powerful crime lord Lung, head of the Flying Dragon gang and her boss Big Brother Wang’s bitter rival, and see that he is killed. But then she falls for the gang lord’s handsome, refined almost too delicate son—who attended Harvard, a name his rough tough gangster father is unable to pronounce—and if that weren’t enough, is powerfully drawn to his hunky bodyguard…” And the story shows us how the gang life twists and turns, and how Camilla must outdo her bosses in their violent and devious ways in order to keep her target in sight, execute her assignment, and to live through it herself. She does not expect to fall in love with the son or to feel remorse at the thought of her assigned assassinations. .. but it happens nevertheless, bringing some light into the shades of her life.
This is definitely one of those romance/spy/period books you can’t put down, so stained with sea water or the dust of the subway it will be. I read it more or less in one sitting. The dialogue is fast and glib and charming; but it is also instructional.
And I found myself thinking of a true Chinese prototype—the tales of Judge Dee, a Tang Dynasty (c. 630–c. 700) Chinese judge, detective, and occasionally also a spy but of course for the right causes. As characters they couldn’t be more different but perhaps it is this tradition that Mingmei Yip is also drawing upon. Dee’s stories, like Camilla’s, interlard the fast criminal catching action with lovely poems, or quotes from Su Tzu’s Art of War, or ancient Chinese customs, legends, myths and beliefs or musings on the sadness of life. In fact, these are the beautiful trimmings often to be found in the Chinese classics (well, yes, Judge Dee is a classic) and a tale of a gorgeous young songstress spy is a very interesting and unexpected place to find them. Like Judge Dee, she can do it all, from contortions to song to poetry. To picking a lock. A very accomplished lady. Since she is only 19, I hope we can expect more!
In short, as the dust jacket puts it, it is a giant bon bon of a novel. (And elsewhere added, “You know you want one!.”) And Mingmei Yip has written three more lush novels about brave, unconventional Chinese women: Song Of The Silk Road, Petals From The Sky, Peach Blossom Pavilion, which I now must purchase and you should, too. Yes, they are bon bons! I couldn’t agree more!