Duncan Jepson is the award-winning director and producer of five feature films. He has also produced documentaries for Discovery Channel Asia and National Geographic Channel. He was the editor of the Asia-based fashion magazine West East and is a founder and managing editor of the Asia Literary Review.
In writing All the Flowers in Shanghai I wanted to explore Chinese attitudes towards motherhood, children and family. Similar to many Asian cultures, a Chinese mother plays a central role with the father being the provider, often a silent provider. The dynamic in a Chinese family between father, mother, sons and daughters is complicated. It was, and largely still is, a patriarchal structure with the mother required to focus on raising the children. Historically, there was always a preference for sons over daughters, traditionally explained by the practical need for strong arms and hands in the fields. It is difficult to accept the relevance of this reasoning today, but those urges of preference and discrimination are still present whether among the poor or rich. It is an ugly and inexcusable way to think and act, and it is this relationship between a Chinese mother and daughter I wanted to focus on in my story.
As a Eurasian, but brought up in the UK, over years of studying, dating, traveling, and working in Singapore, Hong Kong and China, I have noticed that often this favoritism of sons over daughters, and often eldest over youngest, is regularly promoted by the mothers themselves. It is as though providing and raising a son, guarding the family name, must be done regardless of the cost to those around them, even though in modern Asia the cost is unnecessary. Like some atavistic calling, the prejudices must be maintained no matter that they contradict logic and fairness and, most importantly to me, are continued by many mothers in the face of their own experiences of this same attitude.
But the preference does not always stop at favoritism and its wretched cousin, discrimination, it can become the actual victimization of daughters. At worse, as is well documented, a daughter can be rejected and abandoned on the street to die or more simply drowned. I wanted to use this story to explore how a mother could intentionally treat a daughter in this manner, having often been treated this way themselves; to understand what forces would push a woman to act this way. I wondered what must then happen for a mother to reconsider how she treats her daughter and what event must occur to awaken her to become fully aware and cognizant of the senselessness of this prejudice, particularly in a culture that declares its belief in family so fervently. Finally, I wanted to explore what prevents others from intervening and interrupting this “philosophy.” In the end, let’s be clear, everyone is culpable for the harm caused.
My mother told me that she had made up her mind not to return to Singapore only a few years after arriving in the UK. She might have missed home, and I think she always did, but the enjoyment and prospect of freedom from tradition and conservative expectations was not to be sacrificed for anything. She felt that Chinese women needed to question the lives they were asked to lead and should be able to choose how and with whom they would spend their futures. I believe she would have liked the intentions behind my story and I wished she could have read it.