The Evergreen Tea House by David T.K. Wong Muse $70 The path to writing a novel about Hong Kong is strewn with literary landmines. Most writers who pass through this complex place trip, producing work that romanticises, condescends or simplifies. Although David Wong has fallen into some familiar traps, he has drawn on extensive experience to produce an engaging romp that avoids many of the most obvious. His book spans three decades, from the chaotic post-war social and economic malaise in the early 1950s to the soul-searching political contretemps of the mid-80s. Wong has pulled off a difficult trick: he writes from the heart with obvious affection for his birthplace, while applying an intellectual commitment to understanding events that elude the most sophisticated analysis. Inevitably, there are cliches and stereotypes. His crusading journalist, with an irritating line in self-absorption, strikes up a relationship with a drink-addled servant whose work-rate would not challenge a somnolent snail. A determinedly linear plot revolves around Chu Wing-seng, a standard rabid capitalist, who inherits a multi-faceted conglomerate built up from dubious beginnings by his liberal father towards the end of the Korean war. As his empire and his family expand, Chu is forced to confront the human, political and economic consequences of promoting the philosophy that material wealth is the path to personal and social redemption. His Buddhist mother finds it hard to reconcile spiritual enlightenment with the dark side of temporal gain her husband initially pursued to keep them from starving. More significantly, Wong uses a mainlander, Cheng Ching, to represent the caring side of Chinese communism. He travels from poverty in a peasant village in Anhui to the riches of a place on the Central Committee via clandestine operations in Hong Kong. Chu's trophy wife, the American-born Chinese and - inevitably - stunningly beautiful Lucille, finds her own escape from loneliness and moral dilemma in the arms of Sebastian Baxingdale, the journalist who tries to tell it like it is. Chu's real love is a bar-room prostitute he met briefly as a young man in Taiwan. Most of the protagonists are drawn carefully rather than deeply. The Evergreen Tea House of the title is where Chu's father and his original associates hatched their plans. They protect it from the vagaries of development and the onslaught of progress. As Chu approaches his personal destiny, he becomes the ultimate victim of the powerful political, social, commercial and emotional forces that forged Hong Kong. Wong says this is no roman a clef, but readers with an intimate knowledge of Hong Kong will have fun identifying where he borrowed traits for his characters. Certainly, Wong draws on personal experience. The Evergreen Tea House sits uneasily - it's not really a genuine saga, yet not quite a post-modern vignette. But despite giving the impression at times of being a pastiche, it contains enough elements of interest and quality to make it worthy reading.