Book review: Tiger Autumn - one of the best Hong Kong novels in years

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 May, 2015, 10:52pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 May, 2015, 10:52pm

Jan Pearson proves that a fine Hong Kong novel can be written on the Far North Coast of New South Wales. After 20 years "in earth sciences" and "various policy roles" in Australia, the author draws on her childhood memories of our city to create the enjoyable Tiger Autumn.

The 240-page book is largely set in Hong Kong in October 1964, just as China prepares to detonate its first nuclear bomb.

When one of the project's leading scientists flees to Hong Kong, Pearson lures the reader into the dark chaos of the Kowloon Walled City, where socialite June Bowen performs voluntary nursing work, as the author's mother did.

June also works for British intelligence, initially unbeknown to her beautiful, feisty 19-year-old daughter, Pearl, who assists her aid to refugees.

Pearson builds the book's tension with graphic descriptions of the walled city, which was demolished in 1993; and the plot gathers pace when the author introduces June's intelligence connections, who race counterspooks for the scientist from darkest Kowloon to Mid-Levels and Hei Ling Chau.

Pearson has an eye for Lane Crawford's latest fashions, but overlooks Ian Fleming-like details that can place and personalise a plot: such as whether her characters' Hong Kong taxis were Austin Cambridges or the Mercedes-Benz 190Db; their fares; the brands of their guns; and the clam of rushing about a city where air conditioning is still a luxury.

The author also lightens her espionage with an engaging chick-lit sub-plot on the social whirl of Pearl and her trendy friends. Among them is the beautiful, feisty and ambitious Aussie Karen Henderson, a Cinderella of the Peninsula hotel's public relations department who seems destined for better things, and features in this book's sequel, Like Red Bird Summer.

They enable Pearson to capture Hong Kong's old can-do spirit and office politics, but the author might have established her expatriate credentials better with a visit to the old Hong Kong Club, and described more fully how Central looked in 1964.

Her rich, young things frequent the then-trendy Hilton hotel, and mix with celebrities at The Peninsula, but old hands might wonder whether they might have spent a more colourful chapter with the tycoons and bankers in The Mandarin, whose luxe arguably defined the city's vibe at the time, and opened the previous year.

Even so, Tiger Autumn is still one of the best Hong Kong novels in years, because its author writes simply; gets on with a well-crafted plot; and builds credible dialogue and characters.

Pearson has remembered that fiction is entertainment as much as art, and she is certainly a name to watch.

Tiger Autumn by Jan Pearson (Proverse Publishing)