The Porcelain Thief

Family memoir about lost wealth and retracing history

I can’t quite remember where I found this book, but I certainly bought it secondhand. Although I often struggle with memoir as a genre, there is a very niche subset of memoir that blends personal history with actual history like “H is for Hawk” and “The Hare with Amber Eyes“. When I picked this up, I remember being intrigued by the premise. As I draw to the end of 2020 and the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge, I thought it would be a really good time to read this book.

Image is of “The Porcelain Thief” by Huan Hsu, a hardcover edition pictured on a wooden table next to a Chinese style white and blue bowl, a ceramic spoon and a chopstick rest

“The Porcelain Thief” by Huan Hsu is a memoir about American journalist Huan who decides to finally take up his uncle’s offer to work in his Shanghai company. However, Huan’s decision is not fuelled by a desire to carry on the family legacy but rather a desire to trace his family’s history and the stories of his great-great-grandfather’s buried porcelain collection. However, once he arrives in Shanghai, things are not so straightforward. Stymied by his patchy Mandarin, close-lipped relatives, family hierarchies and a culture that, after growing up in America, is indecipherable to him, Hsu will have to take some real risks if he is ever going to find out whether the stories about the buried porcelain are true, and whether or not he has a shot at finding it himself.

This is a complex and challenging book. Through Huan, we see that navigating family history is indistinguishable from navigating family. Despite Hsu’s excellent research skills honed through his career as a journalist, this book is at heart about relationships and identity. Hsu is unflinchingly honest in his writing, especially about himself, the criticism levelled at him by his relatives, and the mistakes he makes in his quest to return to his ancestral home. Some of the most powerful parts in the book were the clashes Hsu has with local Chinese people in which American-born Hsu is certain of his cultural and moral superiority. It was interesting seeing this approach mellow as the book progresses and Hsu realises that if he wants to succeed, he will need to befriend more locals and defer to their cultural expertise. Another powerful part of the book is the rift that forms between Hsu and his very elderly grandmother over her reluctance to discuss what happened after the family fled their home, and the way it mirrors the rift that formed between his grandmother and her own grandfather, the patriarch of the family, so many years earlier. I really enjoyed reading about how his grandmother and her sisters and cousins got an education, and the generally good-natured feuds between his uncles and between himself and his own cousin.

This is a well-researched book and Hsu weaves family history with China’s history. Understandably, among the relatives and old neighbours that Hsu interviews there are significantly differing accounts of the family history, the character of his great-great-grandfather and the stories of the lost porcelain. To try to make sense of the different histories, Hsu traces each relative’s story from the source: his great-great-grandfather. While this structure had logic behind it, it made for difficult reading. It felt like Hsu was rehashing the same experiences over and over from slightly different perspectives, muddling the central narrative which I think should have been his own experience. I completely understand the desire to show off all the research that he did, but I think a book like this needs to be really carefully curated. I was hoping that everything would come together in the end, but the ending itself was a bit disappointing as well.

A fascinating, touching and at time frustrating book that I think could have benefited from a structural reshuffle.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Non Fiction

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