In which literary journeys cross one evening in Hong Kong...
THERE WERE THREE major happenings in Hong Kong last night for people interested in literature. Two kilometres south-west of where I stood, the current holder of the Man Booker Prize, the pre-eminent literary award was having dinner. I am fascinated by John Banville's writing, but I declined the invitation.
Two kilometres northeast of where I stood, there was an event featuring Suketu Mehta, who had just won the top literary award for Asia-Pacific writing: the Kiriyama Prize. I could have gone to that, but I had had breakfast with him the previous day, so decided to skip it.
In the end, I went to an event for the launch of a new children's anthology by Chameleon Press, a small publisher based in Hong Kong. It was the least grand of the events listed for the literary festival for the day, but it was important in an unusual way: there were a range of authors, mostly amateur, in the book, from Indian to Chinese to Italian to Sri Lankan. Children's book authors are rare in Asia, so I joined the celebration for the anthology, which is called Thomas Beckham Wang.
I love children's books and I am fascinated by the mysteries in the history of the genre.
One of them is the secret of Cinderella. I have long been intrigued by the tale, which most children assume started as a Disney cartoon, and most adults assume is a European fairy tale.
But there has always struck me as something odd about the tale: it's the shoe-size. Why should the story hinge on the shoe size of the main character? Stories are inevitably based on the inner beauty of the character, the outer beauty of the character, the brains or the strength or the courage of the character: but never the shoe size. Cinderalla is unique in that respect.
Think about it long enough and you will solve the mystery.
Cinderella is an early example of a pirated piece of creative intellectual property. It is a fairy tale from this side of the world, from East Asia. It was written around AD 860, and concerns a girl called Yeh-Shan, who had the smallest feet in town: a key signifier of beauty in traditional Chinese culture.
The tale of Yeh-Shan and her ugly sisters was lifted by French writers in the 1600s, some 700 years later. They changed her name but retained the fact that her fortune was made by her shoe-size: a detail that makes sense in Chinese culture, but is odd in a Western context.
So much creative work is misunderstood and wrongly packaged these days; and only the few people who are interested in culture and history know the truth.
Children all over Asia purchase the "Disney Princesses" books and videos and accompanying merchandise. But almost no-one remembers the origins.
But let us not forget. Welcome home, Yeh-Shan.