Book review: Collected Hong Kong Stories – love, shattered dreams and pursuit of wealth in the vertical city

Drawing on his broad experience and knowledge, author David T.K. Wong takes us on a vivid tour through Hong Kong’s back alleys, and abroad, in this eye-opening and varied collection written over 30 years

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 February, 2017, 7:32am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 February, 2017, 7:32am

Collected Hong Kong Stories

by David T.K. Wong

Blacksmith Books

4 stars

While most authors build a following in their home country before venturing abroad, Hong Kong’s limited outlets for literary fiction led to local author David T.K. Wong taking his work to the US, Europe and Southeast Asia before publishing them here.

Now, however, he brings us 30 years worth of his short stories in one book, a rich and complex portrait of Hong Kong told through the lens of its varied inhabitants, their relationships with the city and each other.

Drawing on his own broad experience and knowledge – he studied political science and journalism, worked as a journalist, educator and government official – Wong conjures characters from all levels of society, from wealthy businessmen to migrant workers. He takes us on a vivid tour through Hong Kong’s back alleys, and abroad, whether to London’s Embankment or the traditional tea houses of Kyoto, Japan.

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Though many of Wong’s stories explore the city’s past and present, rather than presenting us with an exhaustive history, he allows the attitudes of his characters to reflect the times they live in. In The Cocktail Party, the protagonist expresses rage at the “smugness and missionary zeal” of the British for outlawing the tradition of men keeping concubines, declaring it a perfectly sensible institution. In Lost River, a Chinese father explains why he forbids his daughter’s marriage to the young Briton she has fallen in love with: “He does not speak our language. He does not know our customs. He may not even like our food.”

In Miss Tsushima Wong tackles the sensitive topic of the Nanking Massacre, and a generation of Chinese children brought up to hate the Japanese, as the protagonist whose father was executed during the Japanese occupation of China in 1937 struggles to make peace with a young Japanese girl.

In The Revolt of Grass, Yun, a migrant construction worker from China lured to Hong Kong by the promise of a better life, learns the hard way that there’s no such thing as easy money.

Then there’s Dead Cert, a veteran Australian jockey’s insider’s guide to what really goes on behind doors at Hong Kong’s horseracing tracks: “Of course we have to be discreet, but Hong Kong is the honey pot. It is the El Dorado of the sport of kings.”

In each story, Wong slips into the skin of a different person, sharing insights into their respective worlds with us. He deftly avoids the clichés often associated with Hong Kong fiction, and through his sharp observation of human nature draws us into each plot, so that the moment we finish one story we’re looking forward to the next.

Love, shattered dreams and the pursuit of wealth are common threads in Wong’s stories. In The Card Index, a wife mocks and despises her husband, a humble history teacher, for his lack of ambition. Blood Debt, on the other hand, is the tale of two blood brothers who become separated by opposing destinies when one grows up to be a gangster and the other an undercover cop. This story gives us a glimpse of what it’s like to grow up in a makeshift shelter of corrugated iron among the mosquitoes, cockroaches and rotting rubbish of a squatter’s settlement. An example of Wong at his best, it’s a tale of childhood romance, corruption and disillusion.

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Wong’s concise language, and often ironic, dry sense of humour, make the stories a pleasure to read. All have been published separately in magazines both in Hong Kong and abroad, and many have been broadcast over radio (more so, in fact, than any other Hong Kong writer).

While they each are strong enough to stand alone as short stories, they are best enjoyed as a collective portrait, and there are few Hong Kong people – expats or locals – that couldn’t learn something new about our city from this varied collection.