Hong Kong, by the books

We've yet to see the definitive Hong Kong novel, but the city has featured in notable works by many famous authors, writes James Kidd

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 May, 2013, 3:32pm

Has there ever been a truly great Hong Kong novel - or, for that matter, a great novel about Hong Kong? Asking around various literary types, the question was greeted with a unanimous "no".

The reasons include Hong Kong's lack of interest in literary fiction, its preoccupation with commerce not culture, and - more fruitfully - the sheer elusiveness of the place. Western writers tend to express this as an exotic otherness; for Asian-born authors, Hong Kong's mystery is the result of almost unimaginably complex currents of global politics, economics and society.

Certainly a great deal of Hong Kong literature is populist. Barbara Cartland ( Fragrant Flower, 1976), the Hardy Boys ( The Clue of the Hissing Serpent, 1974) and Nancy Drew ( The Mystery of the Fire Dragon, 1961) have all stopped over. Harry Bosch flirted with Hong Kong for years before finally visiting in Michael Connelly's 9 Dragons (2009).

More serious engagement is provided by John Le Carré's The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), which exploits Hong Kong as a hub for an array of vested global interests and almost as many drunken journalists. Martin Booth's Music on the Bamboo Radio (1997) combines boy's-own adventure during the second world war with a fable of cultural exchange. Jane Gardam's Old Filth (2004) transforms the old acronym (Failed in London Try Hong Kong) into a judge's poignantly comic account of a life lived and a life wasted.

While the city has yet to produce - or inspire - a book widely regarded as a truly great novel, there are still some rollicking good reads involving the barren rock

David Mitchell puts Hong Kong to spectral literary purpose in Ghostwritten (1999): banker Neal Brose is haunted by the memory of his ex-wife and the ghost of a Chinese girl before collapsing in front of the Big Buddha on Lantau.

One of the more memorable, if brief, encounters belongs to Flashman in George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman and the Dragon (1985): "Hong Kong," our naughty hero declares, "is a splendid place to get out of".

However, while the city has yet to produce - or inspire - a book widely regarded as a truly great novel, there are still some rollicking good reads involving the barren rock. Here's a selection of the best.

The Painted Veil (1925)

by W. Somerset Maugham

Somerset Maugham's Hong Kong mixes illicit love, thwarted ambition and characters sounding eerily like Noel Coward. There's a lot of "I say", and lines such as "He's awfully in love with me". Living with irony in Happy Valley, Kitty Garstin is so self-involved (obsessions include social rank, her lover, and her second-rate property) she can't "[appreciate] the blue sea and the crowded shipping in the harbour … It was very difficult at Hong Kong. She hated the Chinese city".

The Painted Veil was so controversial in its day that Maugham was sued by several Hong Kong residents surnamed Lane for choosing that name for his main characters. He amended this to Fane and was sued again. At this point, Maugham changed Hong Kong itself into "Tching-Yen". It's not recorded whether the island launched its own lawsuit.

Love in a Fallen City (1943); Lust, Caution (1979) by Eileen Chang

Chang Ai-ling can lay claim to being Hong Kong's most successful writer and most depressing novelist to date. The four novellas collected as Love in a Fallen City open with "a Hong Kong tale" titled Aloeswood Incense: an acute, if bleak account of an impoverished girl surviving on her wits and, when that fails, her back. Chang provides eagle-eyed descriptions of unsettling colonial propriety: walled by "swastika-shaped blocks", "the garden was like a gold-lacquered serving tray lifted high amid the wild hills".

More intriguing, perhaps, is Lust, Caution, an hallucinatory brew of sexual betrayal, Japanese-occupied Shanghai and the "commercial paradise" of Hong Kong. Indeed, Chang blames the city's apolitical atmosphere for the radicalisation of Jihazi, a naïve student turned terrorist-in-waiting against Wang Jingwei's puppet government: "The disappointing apathy of average Hong Kong people towards China's state of national emergency filled the classmates with a strong, indignant sense of exile."

A Many-Splendoured Thing (1952)

by Han Suyin

Set in 1949, Han Suyin's semi-autobiographical novel describes an affair between her alter ego and Mark Elliot, a married British foreign correspondent. This illicit romance locks arms with meditations on the future: of communist China, of intellectuals such as Han Suyin (the pen-name of Henan-born Eurasian Elizabeth Comber) who were educated abroad, and of Hong Kong itself.

So, while Han bridles when Hong Kong high society condemns her relationship with Elliot, she admits that it was the only place in China that afforded her the freedom to write and publish her story. Torn between impossible love, and the desire to serve her country and express herself creatively, Han offers sensitive albeit unresolved snapshots of her homeland on the brink of profound transformation.

The Drunkard (1963); (1972)

by Liu Yichang

"Most people have gone to Hong Kong, haven't they?" asks Liu Yichang in Intersection (Duidao), which inspired Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love. Liu's contribution to the city's literary culture - as editor, teacher and journalist - is hard to overstate. His impressionistic, autobiographical novel The Drunkard (Jiu-tu) was a cri de coeur against his adopted hometown's low tolerance for high art: the narrator-protagonist complains that only pulp fiction survives in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong of Intersection is in constant change: stock market fluctuations, lovers departing, buildings demolished, political instability, bodies ageing, and an endless round of commerce and shopping. This impermanence is evoked by the Joyce-like progress of Ah Xing and Chunyu Bai, whose peripatetic progress through the streets inspires meandering thoughts about Bruce Lee, war, Shanghai, smoking and Hong Kong's overpopulation. The story ends by mixing lyricism with politics. Two birds glance at each other: "Then both birds took off, one towards the east, the other towards the west."

Tai-Pan (1966)

by James Clavell

"'A pox on this stinking island,' Brock said, 'The whole of China at our feets and all we takes be this barren, sodding rock.'" The island is, of course, Hong Kong: "A thousand yards off the mainland. Inhospitable. Infertile … But Hong Kong contained the greatest harbour on earth." One can almost taste an expensive TV miniseries - starring Richard Chamberlain - pouring from every paragraph of this story of Hong Kong's origins in the 1840s. There's lots of macho posturing and much unwise prophesying: "Hong Kong's got no future." Ironic, in part, given Clavell's sequel, Noble House (1981). Tai-Pan was also a boardgame in the early 1980s. Sadly, no satire was intended.

The Monkey King (1978); An Insular Possession (1986)

by Timothy Mo

Timothy Mo's debut, The Monkey King, was a story of family dysfunction in 1950s Hong Kong with global implications: "Understand the English and you will understand the Chinese too. Wallace did not dispute the analogy. The English were a nation of hypocrites as well."

An Insular Possession reverses back to the opium wars. Mo's playful meta-fiction parodies Victorian literature (Dickens, Thackeray, even Conrad) to explore the ever-adapting English language: "Me tink-ee mak-ee half-um silver dollar can buy all-um duck market hab got Canton-side."

Language, Hong Kong and Mo's hero, Gideon Chase, are the unstable meeting points for East and West - entrances and barriers both. See the flowing description of the Pearl River: "The river succours and impedes native and foreigner alike; it limits and it enables, it isolates and it joins. It is the highway of commerce and it is a danger and a nuisance."

Kowloon Tong (1997)

by Paul Theroux

Published in 1997, Kowloon Tong is a "handover novel" that locates Hong Kong as suspended between the stasis of its British past and an uncertain Chinese future. This middling spirit is embodied by Neville "Bunt" Mullard, who is bullied by Mr Hung, an avaricious Chinese bureaucrat, and terrorised by his imperious, xenophobic English mother. Bunt loses himself in a clandestine affair with Mei-ping, an illegal worker in one of his family's textile factories.

As often in Theroux, erotic relations reflect complex global and economic narratives: "Mei-ping no longer seemed like a strange Chinese woman with a Chinese problem … She was a part of him, the rest of him." Bunt, of course, is sadly deluded. But while Theroux laughs mirthlessly at his fate, he sympathises too.

There are also vivid descriptions of Victoria Peak, the Star Ferry and expats bowling at the Cricket Club.

Hong Kong Rose (1997)

by Xu Xi

Xu Xi is one of Hong Kong's sharper popular writers of the past half century: see her sweeping story collection, History's Fiction, or her "handover" novel, The Unwalled City. Drawn to shallow, affluent characters, Xu Xi wrote Hong Kong Rose like a historical bonkbuster.

Reviewing her high life in the 1970s, Rose Kho wanted nothing more than to fit into the upper echelons of Hong Kong society, something her middle-class Indonesian background doesn't make easy. Things don't get any easier when she falls for the gay son of the wealthy Lies, which transforms Hong Kong into a seductive, shiny social prison.

Great fun for sure, but the bright surfaces of Xu Xi's narrative suggest more themes than they address.

Fragrant Harbour (2002)

by John Lanchester

"I like the fact the South China Sea has so many moods. Sometimes the water is blue and translucent; sometimes it is dirty, turbulent brown." Here, in miniature, is John Lanchester's Hong Kong, a place of mixed fortunes, of momentary clarity and manifold confusions.

Starting in the 1930s and ending shy of 1997, Lanchester describes landing at Kai Tak airport, the Stanley concentration camp, and life for both Chinese and expatriates (including the less-than-salubrious habit of "junking").

Ambitious in scope (four characters criss-cross in time and space), Fragrant Harbour's Hong Kong could stand for many of the novels already featured - at once vivid and elusive, present and eternal, a place with many identities and none.