Amy Tan Weaves Family Mystery Into 'Valley Of Amazement'

Nov 4, 2013
Originally published on November 4, 2013 3:28 pm

Amy Tan was 200 pages into a new novel when she attended a large exhibition on Shanghai life in the early 1900s. While there, she bought a book she thought might help her as she researched details on life in the Old City. She stopped turning pages when she came upon a group portrait.

"It's called the '10 Beauties in Shanghai,' " she says. These were the winners of a citywide beauty contest for courtesans. There, staring solemnly at the reader, were 10 young women, half of them dressed in similar outfits — snug silk jackets with high, fur-lined collars and three-quarter-length sleeves that displayed long, white sleeves underneath. Several of the women were wearing tight headbands embroidered with pearls. The shape of the headbands brought the wearer's forehead to a comely V shape, and the tension pulled the eye upward, into the much-desired Phoenix eye shape. The wardrobe and the look were all part of the courtesan's official ensemble.

Tan stared at the photo. There was something about it that was disturbingly familiar.

Then she remembered a photograph of her grandmother, the long-suffering family matriarch, that she kept on her desk for inspiration. Tan's so attached to the picture, she carries a copy of the image on her mini-tablet. She pulls it out to show me.

And there, staring straight at me, is a young woman dressed exactly like the richly garmented 10 beauties.

A Picture And A Mystery

Tan says absent a diary or some other incontrovertible piece of evidence, all one can do is speculate. Family history says her grandmother married late, had two children and was widowed when her husband died in the 1918 influenza pandemic. She went to live with her brother, who, Tan says, was cheap and provided her and the children with only the barest of necessities.

Did Tan's grandmother become a courtesan because she needed the money?

Or maybe she wasn't one at all. Maybe the image reflected something else altogether. Maybe she took the daring step of entering a Western photographer's studio (where no proper young Chinese woman would ever be caught) and had her photograph taken in courtesan's clothing for shock value.

Even the most innocuous speculation, though, was too much for Tan's relatives still in China. "They were very upset that I could even bring up such a notion," she says. In deference to family peace, Tan has let it remain a mystery.

'I Never Have Trouble Cutting Pages'

Tan dumped her 200 completed pages and began again. (That's the equivalent of a modest-sized book, but Tan wasn't fazed: "I never have trouble cutting pages.") She crafted a new story of how a woman from a good family — like her grandmother — goes about making a life for herself after suddenly finding herself needing support. Back then, Tan says, "if you don't have family that are willing to take you in, you're stuck. If your family all have died in famine, or fire or political insurrection — you have nothing."

Tan's The Valley of Amazement is an opus that covers half of a tumultuous century, ranges across two continents and involves love, deceit, forgiveness and, ultimately, redemption. The novel tells the story of Lucia Minturn, a headstrong young woman from a family of bourgeois San Francisco intellectuals who meets a handsome Chinese artist under her parents' roof and falls in love. When the artist returns home to Shanghai, Lucia — abandoning all propriety — follows him. She quickly discovers he will not buck his rigidly traditional family, even though she's pregnant with their first grandchild. To support herself and her daughter, Violet, Lucia establishes a first-class courtesan house. In the chaos that follows the Qing Dynasty's collapse, Lucia is separated from Violet, and when she is of age, Violet becomes one of Shanghai's most famous courtesans.

A Deeper, Different View Of An Ancestor

There are familiar Tan themes throughout The Valley of Amazement: family estrangement, mother-daughter angst, the displaced feeling of being considered "other" in a new environment. And there is rich detail of life in the early 1900s, both in San Francisco and in Shanghai.

Her copious research gave Tan a fuller understanding of what her grandmother's daily life must have been like in China and broadened her perception of who her grandmother must have been. Her grandmother never got around to telling her own story; she committed suicide as a young woman, after what she considered an unforgivable betrayal. But Tan says The Valley of Amazement might add another dimension to the family lore: "She was more than just a wife and a mother who cried a lot. What I imagined in my mind is whether she would have been pleased that I knew she had more gumption, more style and more attitude than the stories that had been told about her."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


Amy Tan has a new novel for the first time in seven years. Her newest, out tomorrow, has the title "The Valley of Amazement." Like many of works by the author of "The Joy Luck Club," it deals with China's history and also tense mother-daughter relationships.

Recently NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates visited with Amy Tan in San Francisco, to talk about the very personal inspiration for her latest work.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Amy Tan is obsessed with detail. She spent years making sure the details were correct in "The Valley of Amazement." Her epic covers a half century and takes place on two continents. And even though the book is finished, Tan continues to double-check. She can't help it.

AMY TAN: When you're writing a novel, it's interesting, you'll say yes. Then they went from San Francisco to Shanghai, and then you think, well, how did they get there? And you can say, well, they went by ship. And then you say but I have to add this one detail; were there railings?

BATES: This richness of detail allows the reader to become fully immersed in the period and in San Francisco and Shanghai, where most of the book takes place.

Tan and I are in them main salon of the Eureka, a large steam ferry that carried people back and forth from San Francisco's Hyde Pier across the Bay to Marin County at the turn of the last century. She's talking to John Muir, a Ranger who works here at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Muir is showing Tan a book that depicts this part of San Francisco in the early 1900s, the time in which her new novel is set.

JOHN MUIR: Here again, there's the San Francisco waterfront envisioned in 1903.

TAN: Mm-hmm.

BATES: Tan's research came with surprises. We discovered another one today.


TAN: On this insanely windy day, Muir walks us down the pier, past a group of middle schoolers singing sea shanties.


BATES: We're going to see an exhibition in the Maritime Museum. In this cavernous, noisy place, Tan is startled to find the last name of her heroine pop up in a narrated slide show about important local businessmen of the day.

TAN: That is the name of the family, the Minturns. Isn't that - boy, that's weird? Isn't that weird?

MUIR: Yeah, I think he owned a steamship line.

BATES: In Tan's novel, Lucia Minturn leaves her San Francisco home to pursue her beloved. He's a young Chinese artist from a prominent family, and has long been promised to a suitable Chinese fiancee back home. But 15-year-old Lucia is in love and determined and pregnant and she follows her beloved to Shanghai.

The couple's daughter, Violet, is born soon after. With no other resources, Lucia becomes the owner of a successful pleasure house in a city famous for them. Later, through heartbreaking trickery, Violet is separated from Lucia and becomes one of the most famous courtesans in Shanghai.

Here, Tan reading as Magic Gourd, a retired courtesan, imparts wisdom to 14-year-old Violet as she enters the trade.

TAN: (Reading) Always remember, Little Violet, you are creating a world of romance and illusion. When you play the zither, it should be the aching or joyous accompaniment to your song-poem. Sing to your suitor as if no one else is in the room.

BATES: The inspiration for Violet and her work came a few years ago, when Tan was here at the Asian Art Museum to see an exhibition on Shanghai. Tan is a favorite here. And as school children flow past us, museum director Jay Xu hurries over to greet her.

TAN: Hi, Jay.

JAY XU: Congratulations...

BATES: In a quieter alcove, Tan shows me a Post-it studded book she used in her research. It's a heavily illustrated study of Shanghai courtesan life in the early 1900s. These courtesans, Tan discovered, were not just pretty flowers waiting for male patrons to visit with gifts and money. They were responsible for popularizing Western culture in the city, and enhanced its reputation as an international destination.

TAN: So when somebody said that they were very influential, I thought powerful women. Then I was looking through this book, and I get to this picture. And it's called "The Ten Beauties in Shanghai, 1911."

BATES: These were the winners of a citywide beauty contest for courtesans. The 10 young women are grouped before a painted backdrop, and five of them are wearing similar outfits: snug silk brocade jackets with high, turned-up collars lined in fur. They also have tight, pearl-encrusted headbands that emphasize the shape of the wearer's eye. All part of the courtesan's ensemble.

Tan found her own eyes widening in shocked recognition, though. Something about these women seemed very familiar. She dips into a hidden coat pocket, pulls out her mini tablet and now I'm shocked.

TAN: This photograph is the one that was a favorite on my desk that I would look at for inspiration.

BATES: It's a photograph of her grandmother, and Amy Tan's grandmother, the grim and proper matriarch of her family, is dressed exactly like the courtesans in the book. Does this mean what I think it does?

TAN: She looks very serene and sedate, not at all very - you know, not at all provocative.

BATES: And this is actually your grandmother?

TAN: This is my grandmother.

BATES: Could Tan's esteemed grandmother have been a courtesan? Why else would she be wearing those clothes in that photo? Family lore says she was widowed after a short marriage and desperate to support her two small children. Tan wonders if her grandmother could have become a courtesan out of financial need.

Dany Chan, one of the Shanghai exhibition's curators, says in the end, it doesn't matter.

DANY CHAN: Your grandmother, for whatever reason, she took those photographs and now she's not forgotten.

BATES: Tan decided to imagine why a woman might become a courtesan in the first place. She discovered that women who suffered reversals in early 20th century China had few options, even in a rapidly modernizing city like Shanghai.

CHAN: If you don't have family who are willing to take you in, you're stuck. If your family all have died in a famine or fire or whatever it was - political insurrection - you have nothing.

BATES: Same thing for women who flouted convention. In "The Valley of Amazement," Lucia Minturn's parents were appalled that she'd taken a Chinese lover. Her lover's family was equally outraged that he'd had the temerity to profess love for a white woman. And their biracial child Violet was an affront to both families.

After discovering the courtesan book, Tan dumped 200 pages of the novel she'd begun earlier and started on a new one.

TAN: I never have a problem cutting material.

BATES: And almost a decade later, the result is "The Valley of Amazement." Tan hopes her grandmother would approve.

TAN: What I imagined in my mind is whether she would have been pleased that I knew that she had more gumption, had more style and attitude than the stories that had been told about her.

BATES: And that her descendant had made her visible to the world.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.


INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.