Book review: Sayonara Bitch is a tasty slice of hard-boiled Hong Kong noir
The sequel to Bitch on Heat mixes all the pulp ingredients – tough guys, vampy gals, zingy dialogue and incomprehensibly twisted plot – and gives them an authentic Asian spin. But is it maybe time for some new clichés?
by Richard Tong
The sequel to 2013’s excellent Bitch on Heat, Sayonara Bitch is another raucous helping of Hong Kong noir very much along the same lines as its predecessor, albeit with a slightly better-paced plot and slightly less good jokes.
Set in 1988, it again details the misadventures of Jack So, proprietor of small-time advertising firm So Fuk Yu and part-time private investigator, mostly unwilling. The tone and mise en scène are those of a classic noir potboiler, full of wiseacre banter, dizzying plot twists and characters who are either struggling in their circumstances or just plain jaded with life. But the environment is a recognisably Hong Kong one, and the novel is shot through with an appropriately noirish cynicism about the workings of Hong Kong society, especially at its higher levels.
Sayonara Bitch adopts the same hybrid text-graphic format as its predecessor, with several pages of wide-spaced text at a time taking up most of the book, interspersed with extended sections in graphic novel style, with one or several usually captioned drawings to a page in arresting, stark, spare black and white.
The confoundingly twisting plot sees So get tangled up in gangster Bronson “Lion Tamer” Chung’s search for his old flame, Kitty Ho, who’s also an old acquaintance of So’s. Chung kills her subsequent lover, sleazy Wan Chai pub owner Neil “Nifty” Teplice, and So is hired to assist in a blackmail hand-off by high-profile businessman Liu Pang, who doesn’t last long either.
Enter casino magnate Darius Man, whose wife had been having an affair with Liu and is being blackmailed alongside him, and who is also interested in So’s services. Throw in the usual dodgy property deals, sordid revelations and agonising personal stories that gradually come to light, and as with most noir the plot rapidly becomes hopelessly convoluted and ultimately doesn’t matter that much. Instead it’s used as a canvas on which to paint a suitably brooding, oppressive picture based on explosive set pieces, zinger-laden dialogue, intrigue, tough men, vampish women and all the other usual hard-boiled trappings.
A compulsive page-turner like its predecessor, the book is at its strongest when it slips effortlessly into a tone that at once embodies and sends up noir conventions. Tong’s characteristically sharp, sarcastic writing style is present and correct, and So’s mots remain appropriately bon. Speculating what might have been used to knock him out, he ventures, “Chloroform? Ether? Some sort of flurane? Durian?” When offering to drive instead of Liu, he quips, referring to his three-year-old daughter: “If anything should happen to Mei you’d never forgive yourself. I wouldn’t let you.” There’s also a reference to a “Mexi-Canton stand-off”.
And on recalling the advice of the father of narrator Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby about not judging other people because they might not have enjoyed the advantages you have: “I was living in a 300 square foot apartment at the time, with four clapped-out karaoke hostesses, watching my mother die. Even if I had a sense of irony there was nowhere to keep it.”
Several of the other characters crack just as wise. Asked if there’s something different about her, his assistant Angel Luk quips: “Yes. I’m using a new strawberry douche. And when I ran in here to answer the phone I accidentally whipped up a daiquiri.” There is a lot of this sort of thing – reference to “the comings and blowings of Lockhart Road” and a description of the interior of a cavernous hostess bar as a “whoreditorium”.
There are also lots of mainlander jokes again, most of them based on the extended family of So’s late wife who come to visit. These, fortunately, cut both ways, particularly in the character of tough family matriarch Gu-por. “This building is falling down, she complains. British plumbing is rubbish. The feng shui is very bad. Do not wait for China to fix everything in ninety-seven.”
The same even-handed irony does not apply, however, to the novel’s many paragraph-long butcher’s-slab descriptions of the physical charms of particular women, a series of salacious females with whom Jack just about manages to resist sleeping. The male-gaze descriptions of pneumatic femmes fatales might be noir to the core, but they can get a bit repetitive, and this is one area where the tone could do with a bit of an update, right down to the slightly questionable title.
The descriptions of women the protagonist finds less attractive could be considered downright sexist. The flirtatious banter can also get a bit much, occasionally crossing the line between witty badinage and smirking objectification.
There’s also perhaps a little too much direct quotation from noir classics, from Chandler to Sunset Boulevard to, particularly appropriately, Chinatown. In fact, the text is tirelessly allusive to almost everything, as if it’s trying to impress us: among others, there are extracts from Evelyn Waugh, William S. Burroughs, Nabokov, Groucho Marx, Tolstoy, Mary Poppins, John Ford, Kurosawa, Lewis Carroll, Star Wars, Jane Austen, T.S. Eliot, Emily Bronte, Kafka, Taxi Driver and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
It’s all rather unnecessary, as Tong’s own material is frequently so good. The mixed-race So is an absorbing character, an outsider in every sense who refers to “the Cantonese” as if he isn’t one of them and takes satirical potshots at staple Hong Kong targets such as celebrity feng shui masters, but also refers to gweilos as if they’re another species.
His standard-fare tough-guy antics are nicely counterpointed by his relationship with his daughter, which provides an emotional core to the narrative and rounds out his character; Tong also writes very convincing lines for a three-year-old.
Tong’s Bitch series – a third is apparently planned – remains a bracing and unique blast of authentically east-west atmosphere, an Asian spin on an American form that perfectly captures the spirit of the city it depicts. Possibly, though, the exuberant genre mash-up and successful transplantation of the noir idiom to a Hong Kong context don’t feel quite so refreshingly novel the second time around. It would help, for the third book, if Tong has surprises for us that go beyond the inevitable twists of the plot.