In the eighties we often would go to Hong Kong for a few days whenever we were spending the holidays in Taipei; it is a short flight and in those days my grandfather kept an apartment there, of which I remember only a small bedroom and the giant bottle of drinking water in the kitchen. We would take the tram up to the Peak, go to the park, eat seafood in crowded noisy restaurants, walk along the waterfront. Much later, in college, I would live with a bunch of girls who were from Hong Kong; as the conversation rattled around me my brain would pick up a word, here and there, of the Cantonese which even now still often sounds like an incomprehensible babble.
The Hong Kong of W. Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil is another world from the one I know, one of expatriates in a British colony, with their clubs and servants and their bungalows and tiffins, of the society that is even more constrained by class and status and position than it might be back in England. And the China to which Kitty Fane finds herself in the heart of a cholera epidemic is several lifetimes away from the one in my memory. When he writes of the sights and smells of the city, they remind me of city streets I remember from my own trips. I can see in my mind the boats moored closely together, "like peas in a pod."
I have nothing in common with Kitty – she is beautiful and charming and shallow, and I am none of those – but I feel pity for her, and a kind of understanding. Her husband Walter, as punishment for her infidelity, has blackmailed her into coming with him to Mei-tan-fu, where a cholera epidemic is decimating its population, and it is here, alienated from everything and everyone that mattered to her shallow life that Kitty is able to come to terms with who she is and what she wants from life. For their entire married life she has despised Walter because he loved her and she did not love him, but it is not until they are in this distant circle of hell, of disease and death, that she comes to understand that what she mistook for blandness disguised an innate decency, a morality, that she needed. But the realization comes too late for anything except the fact that it will not give her a second chance with Walter, although it will set her free to continue her life on a new path.
Sometimes it is only after you have hurt someone who loved you so badly that they will never see you the same way again, after you find yourself confronted with how meaningless your life has been, and how insignificant you are, that you can rebuild who you are and become the person you were meant to be, that you wanted to be. After the shame has burned away until nothing of what you were once remains, after you have been forgiven (and even if you aren't), after you forgive yourself.