Some Local Reads

A slew of Hong Kong novels has come my way recently. I’ll take them in chronological order of setting.

The World of Suzie Wong is a Hong Kong classic that leapt forth from a library shelf. The novel is a love story, but beautifully executed. Robert Lomax is an artist who checks into the Nam Kwok Hotel in Wanchai. The hotel is a brothel in all but name and, while Robert does not hire the prostitutes, he becomes friendly with them – and one, in particular, Suzie Wong. The characters of the girls and the moral norms of Hong Kong of the 1950s are sharply drawn, but the true strength of this book is Suzie’s own coming to terms with her past, with her feelings of inferiority both as a former prostitute, and later as a Chinese in Western society. By modern standards, the book is a little verbose and the internal monologues overblown, but it’s still a fine read.

The Road by Austin Coates was first published in 1959, and has been recently reprinted by HKU Press. The author was a district officer in the colonial government of the 1950s, and the other work of his I’ve been lucky enough to read is My Life as A Mandarin, an often hilarious, yet touching memoir. The Road is also set in the same era, but is a novel. Sylvia is a free-living novelist who marries a district officer in Hong Kong. Sylvia’s published novel is a fictionalised account of her passionate affair with an Indian in Tokyo: that she should cuckold her husband, be public about it, and with an Indian, sets her at odds with the village that is Hong Kong expat society of the time. Richard, her husband, is given the task of building a road to a remote part of Lantau, which sets him at odds with those who live there and don’t want the road, but there are rich and powerful people who see the road as an opportunity for self-enrichment. The story unfolds from numerous points of view, and some of the scenes are amongst the funniest I’ve ever read. A must-read before the current print run sells out.

Tiger Autumn by Jan Pearson is set in the tense atmosphere of China’s first nuclear test in 1964. The central part of the story concerns the escape of Dr Lin Dei from China, and his refuge in Hong Kong. He is assisted by Pearl Green, one of four society belles, and a cast of other characters, with layer upon layer of double-crossing and dirty dealing. Unlike Suzie Wong and The Road, there is too much action for this to be a portrait of its times – and too many anachronisms. We first meet Lin Dei wearing a T-shirt in 1964 in China, when everyone wore Mao suits, we seem to have IDD in an era when international phone calls, even for government officials, had to be booked weeks in advance. And the spy story sits rather awkwardly with the gossipy lives of the society belles. Nevertheless, the characters are well portrayed, and there is a fair bit of humour in the way the ladies in the book manipulate men who believe themselves to be in charge.

Jumping forwards three decades, the next was The Kowloon English Club by Stephen Griffiths. Joe Walsh heads east in 1996 and arrives in Hong Kong to meet up with his girlfriend – only to find he’s been jilted. Reluctant to return home, he finds a series of menial jobs before gaining employment in the Kowloon English Club. From this ensues a slow but growing entanglement with a cast of peculiar characters, and to some comic effect. Although set at the time of the Handover, this is barely a footnote to the plot – which is a missed opportunity. The novel has an autobiographical feel, which works well, and a quietly understated thread of humour runs through it. My only gripe is with the production – clunky font, typos, sentences that stop half way across the page only to pick up again on the next line – not the writing or plot: In this era of the self-published novel, these are easy to fix and, I hope, have been.

Hong Kong Rocks by Peter Humphreys, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Writers’ Circle and – disclaimer! – a friend of mine, is much more action-packed volume. The book is well set-up, with the protagonist, Nick, describing his death. We then shift to the on-going lives of a group of friends, drunks to a man, and their reaction to Nick’s death. At times hilarious, the only problem I found was that, while the blurb emphasises that the book is set in an alternative Hong Kong reality (aren’t all novels set in alternative realities?), and although the Deportation Act which the characters both fear and are likely to become victims of, the alternative does strain the credibility in other ways. All the same, it was a fun read.

The last of the shelf was Bright Lights and White Nights by Andrew Carter, which brings us into this century. Troy, spurned by his girlfriend in England, arrives in Hong Kong, finds a job and tries to get his life up and running. He struggles to make friends, but does; the next step is to find a girlfriend. An old flame from home crosses his path and all seems to be going well, until it doesn’t in a very bad way. The next thing he knows, Troy is arrested, compelled into becoming a police informant, and is in over his head. I have to be honest: this book has great potential, but the current telling needs work.

So, a few for the bookshelf. It will be interesting to see what the last year’s protests inspire…