Eileen Chang's Photograph with Kim Il-sung
I am going through the storage boxes in my apartment and out comes a small box with letters to/from, photographs of and newspaper clippings about the late Chinese writer Eileen Chang (aka Zhang Ailing 张爱玲). Many of the letters are 'copies' that my parents made of letters that Eileen wrote to others and asked my parents to forward. I put quotation marks around 'copies' because this occurred in the 1950's. Since Xerox had not invented its famed copier machines yet, it was my mother who personally copied out the letters by hand, word by word. When I look at the stack of 'copies,' I (and Eileen) understand how wonderful my mother has been.
Going through these materials, I began to grasp why or how some of these photographs were taken. In the public domain, the best authorized collection of photographs is in the book 對照記 ("Comparative Memories") from Crown Press.
Among those photographs in that collection (and this is an incomplete collection because there are unpublished photographs such as those in the boxes in my apartment), here is the most famous one (shown in a poster below for a theater play about Eileen Chang).
The accompanying text in "Comparative Memories" only said that the photograph was taken before she left Hong Kong in 1955. Why did Eileen take that photograph? Why did she dress up in that way? Why did she strike that particular pose and expression? What was going through her mind?
The most likely explanation comes from this clipping of the review of "The Rice-Sprout Song" on 4/3/1955 in The New York Times Book Review.
The newspaper probably asked her for a photograph and she took a number of photographs that are slight variations of each other. For example, you can compare the positions of the hands in the first photograph above with the New York Times photograph -- it isn't the same photograph! Did you catch that!? From my box of photographs, there is in fact a radiant close-up from this series:
In "Comparative Memories," there is another photograph.
Here is the accompanying text:
[in translation] In 1994, the amateur photographer Tong Shizhang and his good friend Zhang (I can't remember his name) asked to be introduced to me in order to take some photographs. So I put on my only Qing dynasty robe, and I wore a thin cheongsam underneath.
This description for the photograph above obviously requires you to imagine the invisible 'thin cheongsam underneath.' You can see the real thing in this photograph that I took out of the box. When Eileen wrote the description for "Comparative Memories," she was looking at the entire series and did not know which one would be picked for the book.
Now we come to Eileen Chang's photograph with Kim Il-sung, as promised in the title of this blog post. Eileen Chang passed away in September 1995. The most recent photograph in "Comparative Memories" was dated 1968. In her later years, Eileen Chang was a recluse who took great pains to avoid the public eye. Therefore, photographs would appear to be out of the question. But in this box, here is one that is dated just after July 8, 1994. How do I know? She is holding a Chinese-language newspaper headline that said: "Chairman Kim Il-sung passed away suddenly yesterday" for the purpose of dating it. PROK chairman Kim Il-sung died on July 8, 1994. So this was how Eileen Chang got phogographed with Kim Il-sung ...