Book review: Hong Kong Noir, by Feng Chi-shun

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 February, 2013, 4:22pm

Hong Kong Noir
by Feng Chi-shun
Blacksmith Books


Hongkonger Feng Chi-shun has spent his life with death. "I am by nature and nurture, rather undaunted and unperturbed by blood and gore, brutality and violence," the pathologist admits in the foreword to his book.

Feng offers "15 true tales from the dark side of the city", although none is related to his work. He says his stories come from press reports, other reliable sources, or from the "remarkable" lives of his friends.

They fall into three sections: "Losers and Boozers", "Beyond Villains and Victims" and "Sex and the City". Some involve Feng retelling infamous crimes. Inside Hello Kitty's Head is the horrifying 1999 case of a tortured woman, whose decapitated head was hidden inside a life-sized Hello Kitty doll.

His most shocking - and vivid - noir is The Taxi Driver from Hell, where Feng reconstructs "what might have happened" when a cabbie murdered three women and one teenage girl in 1982 and 1983. Elsewhere Feng recounts the collapse of several lives - a man who lost a fortune through gambling, in Death By Numbers, an expat who fell on hard times in Leaving Chungking Mansions, and a forgotten amah in The Millionaire Street Sleeper.

The life of Feng's friend, Herbert, unravels in The Dishonorable Medical Student, after failing an exam. "The blueprint for Herbert's life was: the first 20 years full of happiness, satisfaction and hubris; the rest - full of remorse, a sense of loss and wondering what could have been," Feng writes.

The words, "wondering what could have been", also sum up this book: it's not without merit, but it could have been much better. Only when Feng lets his imagination take centre stage, as in his Taxi Driver tale, can we truly visualise one of his characters. Too many tales skim over the heart of the stories - just as we expect him to make his point - and leave us disappointed.

Yet perhaps, since Feng is a pathologist rather than a writer, it's only to be expected that he fails to bring these people to life.