Author(s): Huan Hsu
In 1938, with the Japanese army approaching from Nanking, Huan Hsu's great-great grandfather, Liu, and his five granddaughters, were forced to flee their hometown on the banks of the Yangtze River. But before they left a hole was dug as deep as a man, and as wide as a bedroom, in which was stowed the family heirlooms. Among their antique furniture, jade and scrolls, was Liu's prized porcelain collection, one he had amassed over many years and which contained priceless imperial items. The vault was fill to its brim before being covered with a false floor and replanted with vegetation. The family's flight across wartorn China, and the arrival of the Communists, would scatter them across the globe. Grandfather Liu's treasure became family myth, from a time that no one wished to speak of - no one ever returned to find it. Three years ago, Huan Hsu moved back to China from the US. Armed with only the slightest threads of family memory, he set out to discover the truth. His investigations will take him through China's cultural past and present, of which porcelain is a unique linking thread. He will gather memories of the China of another age from elderly relatives, uncover the story of his family's flight from the Japanese, and confront the contradictions of contemporary China. The Porcelain Thief will combine Hsu's fascinating record of his family history with accounts of great political and cultural changes, and perhaps reveal, at last, the secret hiding place of his grandfather's porcelain.
The author is an American-born Chinese. Upon seeing his interest in a Ming porcelain display on loan at Seattle museum, his father made the casual remark that his maternal great-great grandfather had once had a large porcelain collection, which he had buried in his backyard when the Japanese had invaded China. Huan was immediately intrigued and decided to find out what had happened to it, and so begins a long journey back to China and finding lost relatives and discovering new cousins, uncles and aunts. This is a wonderfully interesting read which gave me a greater understanding of the Chinese psyche (it gives me an understanding of those Central Otago driving incidents!). The author faces many hurdles, including being an American-born Chinese, which he finds is harder than being a white guy, as he is expected to know everything, including the language. Some of these early chapters, where he is settling into Chinese life and the problems he faces, are both enlightening and funny. A great read and highly recommended. - Peter
'A cinematic account of what might have happened in Xingang almost 80 years ago' Financial Times 'Hsu's account is filled with humour ... an engrossing way into contemporary China' Alexander Monroe, Literary Review 'Fascinating' Monocle 'Huan Hsu takes us on an intriguing journey into his family's and China's tumultuous past. The Porcelain Thief provides a great, intimate view into how modern China really works.' Frank Langfitt, NPR Correspondent, Shanghai 'Part memoir, part journey, and part archaeological expedition, The Porcelain Thief is as suspenseful as any Indiana Jones adventure.' Michael Meyer, author of The Last Days of Old Beijing and In Manchuria 'Huan Hsu blends a fascinating search for his own family's roots with an illuminating portrait of modern China. The Porcelain Thief is a wonderful read.' Rob Gifford, author of China Road '[Hsu's] persistence in the face of numerous obstacles is beyond admirable... He offers plenty of intriguing information about Chinese history and culture, from wild Shanghai traffic to family dynamics. Some first-rate detective work.' Kirkus Reviews
Huan Hsu currently lives in Amsterdam, where he works as a freelance writer and editor for academic and cultural institutions. His essays and fiction have also appeared in Slate, the Literary Review, and Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts.