Queen's Road Central and Other Stories

Queen's Road Central and Other Stories

by Matthew Harrison

Phaeton, $78

This first collection of short stories by Matthew Harrison, a Hong Kong resident for 20 years, is good enough for readers to be eager to know what he'll publish next - and to wonder if he's on the right track.

The eight stories, of uneven length, are named after Hong Kong roads or places, and the detailed descriptions they contain of Hong Kong are good and generally seem highly accurate. It's disconcerting, therefore, to read the disclaimer on the title page: 'The geography of the places mentioned has been distorted, the objective being to capture the spirit of place rather than represent actual places.'

There's a similar disclaimer about the people, episodes and institutions in the stories. People and episodes, we can believe. But the institutions? Certainly, we can make pretty shrewd guesses as to the clubs, restaurants and bars described. And here the occasional inaccuracy would have been better corrected.

It's common advice that one should write about what one knows. It's admirable that Harrison considers the lives of the female bond traders, office managers, secretaries and clerks who populate these stories to be interesting and worthy of compassion. The varied points of view are also admirable. But would it have been better for him to write consistently from the perspective of the expatriate male colleague or acquaintance who most often forms the semi-romantic interest in these tales? By placing himself in the shoes and short skirts of these women and imagining their thoughts and reactions, as he so often does, he reduces their credibility and creates only slight differentiation between them. He also reduces the acceptability of the cultural and cross-cultural information that he proffers.

At times, one senses in the subjects and style of these stories a debt to Somerset Maugham; at other times to Guy de Maupassant. There's certainly a fair degree of unpleasantness and lubriciousness. I'd counsel any novice in the art of kissing to ignore the description given in Pedder Street.

The overwhelming impression made by these stories is of Harrison's energetic interest in the details of Hong Kong's street scenes and particularly in one cross-section.

Other works of fiction have already been set in the world of Hong Kong academe and among powerful Eurasian families. Here, it's the turn of the office workers, traders and bankers of Central.

Harrison refers to cross-border marriages, single-parent families and sexual harassment by female bosses. He describes what it must be like to solicit signatures in an all-day signature campaign and to take part in a poorly attended protest march.

In the longest piece, he describes one young woman's involvement in the right of abode issue - but, disappointingly, shies away from actual events, stating that, 'the demonstration mentioned in Chater Garden is not based upon any actual demonstration'. Perhaps in future he'll throw aside pretence and unabashedly go for historical writing, set in modern Hong Kong. Perhaps even a novel, where the reader has more time to get to know the central characters. Harrison's eye for an image and the details of human behaviour are among the strengths he could bring to it.

The author's cover and chapter illustrations are delightful.