Faces in the Crowd, by Feng Jicai

translated by Olivia Milburn

(Sinoist Books, ACA, 2020)

Publisher’s Blurb

The port of Tianjin is where the ancient Chinese empire met the sea. The turn of the 20th century was a tumultuous time for the city, with the Qing dynasty on its last legs and the Boxers unleashing their ill-fated rebellion against the European trading concessions that had colonised its streets.

For Tianjin’s inhabitants, daily life carried on. These hardy people were shaped by the bitter earth from which they sprang, and every once in a while, there would emerge someone so remarkable that a new name would be inducted into Tianjin’s hall of fame.

From a miracle doctor to an ill-mannered mynah bird, they came from every walk of life and in all shapes and sizes. Together, their stories make up the rich tapestry of a city that the modern world has washed away…

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Andy Thomas, 9/2/20

In China before Coronavirus it was fairly easy to find a slightly dodgy bar; a rice wine strong and pungent – but perhaps watered down; pitfalls in buying paintings and gaudy fake antiques; Chinese silver dollars, still found in East Asia; a caged Mynah bird who listens too much; and all the city life around the time of the end of dynasty, which is apparently still here and presented in these wonderful short vignettes. By including such excellent stories such as “The Yellow Lotus Divine Matriarch”, “Red Lanterns” and “Crop Haired Yang”, Feng Jicai, and his translator Olivia Milburn, talks to an expectation of the essential Chinese characteristic, and bring us a Chinese world that at least ought to have been, may well be still, and which speaks to our present generation a century later.

Certainly I am impressed that such essential characters as Crop Haired Yang contain modern messages: Yang, a woman by hair as if a man, faces public controversy in public conveniences, a tale resonant today. These stories are not just observation, but as reportage give the feeling of participation in Tianjin society.

This is mostly due to the narrative style in translation, which has the air of written speech. Feng is clear that “these characters were invented by me” but the telling of them owes much to Milburn’s ear for the British colloquial expression. Sometimes, however, this is a little overdone, where the narrator becomes a Falstaff of a figure, whose faux-cockney reminds me of the infamous Jim-Jiminy of Dick van Dyke in The Sound of Music. But it generally adds a vigour to the observations. So it’s “giving you gyp” (p.71), “practically had a heart attack on the spot” (p.49); “ask the earth for it“ (p.48) and so on, but still preferable to the alternation of “geezer” with “the Boss” (p.189). And only one use each of the f-word and the p-word profanities, in circumstances quite justified by the context.

Evidently the citizens of the dynasty and the Republic a century ago showed a high degree of business acumen, and Feng Jicai is at pains to show this. He’s concerned about reputation (p.67), marketing (p.29 and p.55), and interestingly, subordination to a higher ranking customer (p.19; p.57). Business people need to be “quick on the uptake”, need to “stay on the ball”, need to have a unique talking-point to stand out, and “it would be worth spending the money just to watch his sales technique” (p.166). In these attributes, and considering the Chinese publisher, I am taken to muse about those publications from the Foreign Languages Press circa 1976, and to compare with these modern, changed times.

In this translation Feng Jicai writes through his translator with the innocence, simplicity, observation and wry humour of Chiang Kee’s children’s stories and observations of literary Oxford and British society in general a generation ago.

This is an immensely enjoyable book, wry and amusing in its observation, with vivid description of characters, and very well translated.

Reviewed by Andy Thomas