Twenty Three published

Hong Kong Future Perfect, a collection of twenty stories about the Hong Kong of the future, was launched last night. I’m still reading the others, but here’s how my contribution starts…

Twenty Three

Making lasagna is always an adventure, and George likes to give Fan a thrill now and again. And what better way to celebrate the first and a bit-th anniversary of their move to Hong Kong, not to mention George’s debut, than an adventure?

Olive oil in pan, crushed garlic, oregano, secret spice, a handful of mint and rosemary from the plants on the balcony that, unlike most of his horticulture, haven’t yet died. One medium onion, a lively one, George reflects as he dabs away a tear. Chopped onion in the pan, low heat, soften it up while he butchers tomatoes, enjoying the tomatonian blood on the chopping board; add meat and simmer. Lasagna: two eggs, flour, some olive oil, and knead until it no longer sticks to his hands.

He steps back from a scattering of vegetable carcasses and a halo of flour around the mixing bowl and sees an hour has passed. Cooking is nothing if not absorbing, and he needed a distraction from the seventy-five minute soliloquy spinning around in his head. He leaves the dough to do whatever it does and wanders into the combined living and dining room of their four-hundred square foot apartment. The computer regards him with a baleful stare. He ignores it and phones her.

She doesn’t pick up. She’s probably in a meeting. Fan spends most of her life in meetings.

He succumbs to the computer. George was born a century late. Quill pens and leather-bound ledgers are more his style. Alone amongst his peers, he learns his lines from a printout rather than memorising them from the screen of an Indriod, A-phone, or whatever. Nonetheless, he has, over the years, come to appreciate the virtual world, and especially the Blog of Nemesis.

It is a subversive blog. Not a call to arms, but nevertheless a critical eye on the random flailing of the disintegrating polity that Hong Kong has become. George doubts that things were any better under the British who, in his view, got away with it because they were white rather than because they were good, or even competent. Nonetheless, since the CEO of Hong Kong was replaced with a mayor by executive fiat from Beijing, the gentle decline has become more of a rapid tumble.

Whither art thou? he asks the computer on seeing that the blog’s author has not yet posted. And thou, sweet shrew? he asks as Fan’s phone once more rings out. In this age of Whatscrap, Fakebook and the like, an SMS is the equivalent of a quill pen. He types one into his unsmart phone, and hopes Fan will read it.

Back into the thick of things. He rolls the pasta flat, cuts it into sheets, makes the béchamel sauce and assembles the lasagna. The oven is the flat’s only concession to things Western: he sets it on 220 and puts the dish in.

Chef, thespian, luddite. As the lasagna cooks, he repeats his lines out loud. When the dish comes out at the end of his seventy-five minute soliloquy, he attempts once more to make contact with Fan. Still, no one picks up, and she has not responded to his message. The lasagna cools. The computer doubles up as television and integrated home entertainment console: George checks the local channel, but switches off in disgust on seeing the face of Hong Kong’s mayor.

Delay no more (his favourite Canto-pun). He eats a quarter of the lasagna, which has turned out to be one of his better ones, with a shout of spice and the cheese crisped without being burnt. He scribbles a note for Fan and props it up on the lasagna’s serving dish before taking the four flights of stairs down to the street.

The streets are quiet, as they have been since the suppression of the HK Independence Movement a few months ago, when all twenty-three of its leaders were rounded up and sentenced under some archaic colonial law which, in the best tradition of ex-colonies gone basket-case loony, had been dredged up, but with the nice local twist of being ‘reinterpreted’ by Beijing. Even so, the quiet tonight is almost preternatural. As if Lady Macbeth had just found the spot on her hand.

One of the reasons that George and Fan live in a tiny apartment, probably an illegal structure, on the roof of a crumbling village house in the arse end of the New Territories is that he is a stage actor, a career that pays even less than television, which makes it a pittance indeed. Add to that the fact that George is an English-language stage actor, with a total potential audience of less than one per cent of Hong Kong’s rapidly migrating seven million people, and compound that with being ethnically Chinese and speaking both Cantonese and English with a Liverpudlian accent, and it’s a wonder he gets any parts at all. But the immediacy of the footlights is inimitable. Nothing comes close. With cameras, there is always a second chance; with the stage, one fuck up and you’re dead.

In what used to be the McAuley and is now the Zhou Enlai Studio of the Arts Centre, George faces an audience of fifty-two. Two-thirds of capacity, which, for the debut performance of experimental theatre written, directed and acted by George Kwok Chi-man, is pretty good. He had hoped that Fan, as executive producer, would make it fifty-three but, as the lights dim and the audience wrestle their phones into silence, there’s still no sign of her.

Seventy-eight minutes later – an overrun of three minutes – and George is chuffed. The audience laughed where they were supposed to, oohed and aahed on cue, and nobody’s phone went off. For all the government’s nasty words, subversive theatre is not dead yet.

And, when he gets home, the lasagna’s still uneaten.

‘Fuck,’ he says.

It’s nudging midnight, and Fan hasn’t returned his call or messages. His phone is a dumb phone so checking the e-mail means switching on the computer.

No e-mail from Fan. ‘Double fuck’. As executive producer and thus bank-roller of his play, he’d hoped she would at the very least make time to accompany its director, writer and sole performer for a celebratory drink after its opening night. No such luck. He checks his watch: he can still make it to the pub before closing time.

‘The usual?’ asks Ah-Ping. ‘Dim ah?’

`Quiet tonight,’ says George as he looks around the all-but-deserted bar.

‘Haven’t you heard?’ says Ah-Ping. ‘The twenty-three are going to be executed. There are a million people in Victoria Park.’

To read the rest, you’ll have to buy the anthology.


Points of View

Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osborne and In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner are both, as it happens, set in Cambodia. And there the similarity ends – but there are plenty of reviews that will explain why. What prompted this post was the points of view from which they were written, and how I think they could both have been a little better with a little more attention on this point.

Vaddey’s book, as the Author’s Notes state, is based on her own experience growing up during the Khmer Rouge era. The author was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power, and escaped when the regime collapsed four years later. Her protagonist was two years older.

The book is written from the first person – “I.” However, it’s pretty obvious from the first few pages that the “I” writing the book is not a seven year old, but an adult remembering the time when she was seven. In other words, and unlike Peter Cary’s True History of the Kelly Gang in which he writes as a barely literate uneducated immigrant would, Vaddey writes using the voice of what she is: a literate adult.

The result, to my mind, detracted from the work. The “I” became a distraction, a give-away that “I” was going to survive the genocide, a device that lost its purpose very early in the work. Using a third person would have left open the possibility that the protagonist wouldn’t make it, increasing the tension.

This was needed. Despite some very moving writing, the emotional heart of the book is the relationship between the main character and her father, who is disappeared about a third of the way through the book. By half way through, it is obvious that her father won’t come back and, with the use of “I” closing off the possibilty that the main character wouldn’t survive, the dramatic tension of the book weakened.

Lawrence’s book was a take on today’s Cambodia, and almost self-consciously avoids “atrocity tourism.” The problem I found with this book was that the many points of view made the author lazy.

The book starts with an undistinguished backpacker crossing the land border into Cambodia. The first ten or so chapters are told from his point of view: we see the world through his eyes.

Chapter 11 is therefore a shock because, a quarter of the way through the book, there is an abrupt change and we see the world through another character’s eyes. It was a few pages before I picked up on this, and I had to go back and re-read it to make sense of what was going on.

From this point, the discipline collapsed. Forget about one character’s point of view per chapter – there was one sequence where we got three character’s points of view in as many pages. While it would be exaggerating to say that these changes came thick and fast, trying to work out which pair of eyes I was seeing things through was a distraction.

It also took the onus off the main character, who ought to have been baffled at events around him. But because I, the reader, knew so much that he didn’t, the sheer terror that someone in that situation would find themselves in didn’t come across.

Of course, one of the reasons I have started writing this blog is to remind myself of what I liked and I didn’t. And there’s a whole stack of classics from the 18th and 19th centuries which have a narrator to guide us along. But I guess my point to me is to choose the rules and stick with them.




A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra is a great book, and deserves all the praise that’s been heaped on it. You can find reviews of it all over the place. What I want to add is a little different.

In the author’s notes, Anthony says that he re-typed his book four times to get to the final manuscript. I was gob-smacked. I hate typing. I’m crap, I wear out backspace keys faster than an F1 driver goes through tyres, and even after getting rid of all those wiggly red underlines, I find I’ve used the wrong words (where / were / wear) all over the place.

But, I’d been stalled on one of my own books for some time. I knew it wasn’t quite there, but continual editing and re-editing seemed to be getting me further away from where I wanted to be, rather than closer to it. As an old mentor of mine once said, writing can get like over-worked pastry, crumbly and grey, and that’s what was happening to this book.

So, I followed Anthony’s idea. I printed my book out, sat down, and re-typed it. I don’t mean I went through it with a pen crossing out some bits, re-working others and typing in the changes. I’d been doing that for ages – too long – and was getting nowhere. I mean I put the stack of paper next to my computer and typed the whole lot in again from scratch.

I was cynical when I began. I tend to write my first drafts long-hand – yes, pen and paper – and type them in, and that first typing in is part of the process of improving writing. I’d already done that, and I’d crossed out and moved bits around and all the other stuff writers do to try and wrestle these awkward entities, words, into submission. I doubted I would gain much. However, this book has about 70 chapters of a about thousand each, so there didn’t seem to be much to lose by trying it out on the first one or two.

Day 1: Re-typed the first two chapters. What a grind. Fuck.

Day 2: Read what I’d typed on Day 1. Boy. I didn’t know what I’d done, but even if it was still crap, it was a much better grade of crap.

So, I set myself a target of 4,000 words and went for it. And that was me, for just under twenty days. By the end of it, I felt as though something very heavy had driven over me and reversed a couple of times. I was barely articulate. I’d broken my laptop keyboard. But it was worth it. The book had gained a stylistic uniformity that took me by surprise. It had fewer loose ends, fewer asides that went nowhere, and just read better.

Perhaps because I hate typing so much, the process of re-typing did what the editing couldn’t: forced me to think if I really needed to say a thing, or whether I could say the same thing with fewer words. One thing that took me quite by surprise was that my book came down from 73,000 to 67,000 words. I didn’t think that was possible.

So, writers, if you’re at a dead end with the polish that shines, I recommend re-typing. It kept me sober for almost three weeks, too. But that benefit turned out to be rather more transient…