Tag Archives: Hong Kong

Sour Sweet (1982) – Timothy MO

When Timothy Mo’s new book, Pure, came out last year, I was intrigued by its premise. Doing some more research on him, I discovered that he had actually been shortlisted for the Man Booker several times in the 80s, and yet none of his books are still available through a major publisher. All of his stuff is, however, available through his own publishing company, Paddleless Press. So when I found a few Vintage paperbacks of these novels at a recent second-hand book fair, I snapped them up.

The Chen family have just arrived in London. Eager to make a new life—and money—in their new homeland. Lily and Chen, along with their new son, Man Kee, and Lily’s older sister, Mui, live together. Though Chen works at an inner-city restaurant, he has bigger plans, and turns to an unfortunate source of income to make sure his dreams do come true.

I love this family. I love the husband and wife, I love the slightly clingy sister, I love the son with the big son. I love that they are comically dysfunctional, just like every other family in existence. I love that they are the ones who find the English confusing and ridiculous, with their crazy traditions like Christmas. I love that, at the heart of this novel, is an important story to be told, a story that chronicles the journey of first-generation Asian immigrants moving from the colonies to the motherland.

Their journey is, by now, familiar to us all – arguably more so to us Australians. We live in a country where the two largest countries of origin for immigrants are China and India. Asian faces are a part of the Australian experience. So it’s easy to read this book thirty years later and recognise the struggles of first-generation Asian immigrants in a predominately Anglo society.

It’s interesting to look at the way in which the immigrant and non-immigrant halves of London live in this context. When Lily finally sends her son to school, she is worried that he is spending too much time playing and having fun, and not learning things the proper, Chinese way. So she sends him to Chinese school on weekends, so he can have a proper, Chinese education. (This still happens today, of course. Many of my friends went to Chinese school on the weekend.)

Outside these obvious desires to see the next generation of Chinese grow up to have some grounding in Chinese traditions, Lily also finds other, non-Chinese, immigrant groups to be somehow intrinsically nicer than white English people. Perhaps she feels them all to be in the same boat, stuck in a country that is unfamiliar, yet unwilling to leave, because this is where they have chosen to make their new life.

The family is stubborn in its refusal to deal with people outside the family unit, though when they do, it is in exceptional circumstances. Chen, for example, seeks out the Triad for money to buy a house and restaurant so his family can escape the city, while the sisters seek out a friend, Mrs Law, when they need female advice. This relationship becomes particularly important about halfway through the novel when it turns out Mui is pregnant with an illegitimate child that needs to be taken care of. Though we never find out who the father is, I wonder if it is Chen—the two have secret conversations that Lily finds worrying, and are quiet whenever she is around. Or, I’m reading way too much into it.

One of the strengths of this novel is its tone. Mo keeps it fairly light and comical, despite the serious nature of the issues he tackles.  The tension between the husband and wife becomes a comical war of attrition with each side trying to outsmart the other without it being obvious. Ironically, of course, both end up getting what they want, but it takes the wife doing everything she can for this to happen. The tension, too, between the two sisters is deftly turned into a black comedy.

Perhaps the largest comedy fodder, though, is situational. Scenes of the husband learning to drive and failing miserably are hilarious, and the fact that the wife becomes even more adept at driving than he could ever imagine is even funnier, particularly considering the kinds of racial and gender stereotypes to which Asian lady drivers are subject. Funny, too, is the whole political structure of the Chinese restaurant in which Chen first works. The waiters know that the English are more likely to tip, but they can’t believe the kind of food they have to serve to them: sweet and sour pork, chicken with cashews—these are not foods that find themselves on everyday Chinese tables.

This is not to say, though, that Mo reaches for Jacobson style farcical comedy. There are moments of genuine heartbreak, especially when the Triad finally catches up with the husband, culminating in a surprisingly down-beat, and understated finale, in which Lily and Mui never actually find out what happened to their husband/brother-in-law.

I wonder whether excising a large portion of the Triad plotline would make the novel a lot better. Mo breaks up his solid story of a family immigrating to England from Hong Kong with occasional vignettes into Triad meetings where upper-level gangsters talk about the cocaine trade into England from all over the world, and while these things are interesting, they take away somewhat from the main tale Mo is trying to tell. I get that, structurally, he needs to introduce the Triads so he can get his pay-off at the end, but it takes focus away from the main narrative thread, not just in terms of content, but in tone, too.

On a purely personal note, too, Mo refers to the members of the Triad by using the meanings of the characters in which their Chinese names are written, something that has always bugged me. We don’t call Tokyo “Eastern Capital”, or Beijing “Northern Capital”—it sounds dumb. Who knows, maybe it was the way to do it at the time.

Sour Sweet is not a spectacular book, but it is certainly not a bad one. If nothing else, it fills a gap in the British immigrant experience, which so often explores other groups, including those from the subcontinent and from Africa. But it fill it admirably, pulling back from the po-faced, serious semi-autobiographical retellings of immigrant experiences. This does not undermine the serious issues faced by Hong Kongers coming to England, but it places the often comic misunderstandings between two cultures at the forefront.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , ,

River of Smoke (2011) – Amitav GHOSH

I was both excited and annoyed when I found this novel on the longlist of the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. Excited, because I had wanted to read it long before its appearance, but annoyed, because I had planned on waiting until the third in the Ibis trilogy – of which River of Smoke is the second, and Sea of Poppies is the first – had been released, so I could do them all in one go. So it was with some trepidation that I began this novel, hoping I wasn’t ruining a rather anticipated reading experience.

Coming in as someone who has not read Sea of Poppies, it was somewhat dismaying to read the opening sections, which appeared to deal with the events of that novel. Fortunately, that sense of displacement doesn’t last long, and Ghosh pushes us head first into what is the bulk of the novel: the degradation of the relationship between the British and Chinese Empires, the beginning of the First Opium War, and the eventual creation of Hong Kong as a British outpost in South East Asia. And once Ghosh gets the story proper going, though – wow. Perhaps the thing that struck me most about the entire endeavour was that is was clear he has done a vast amount of research into this time period, with even the most basic details of everyday life for this group of foreigners living in Canton clearly and vividly presented.

Ghosh provides an exhaustive list of references at the end, but it is his gift that, apart from one or two passages, you do not feel like you are reading a dry history textbook about the period. He really makes each and every character come alive, and in this instance, I am including Canton as a character. There is a real sense of place here, from the sights and sounds of the bustling boats moored to the docks, to the food consumed at every meal. It is clear Ghosh is something of a gourmand, because he really does go to great pains to make you want to eat the meals provided.

Canton, too, is a place to be celebrated. A truly international trading city, the melting pot of ethnicities who make their living in the shipping industry provide a huge cast of characters and caricatures from which Ghosh can draw. Here are the early signs of globalisation, or internationalisation at work – a combination of early free trade capitalists, bringing their business to an Asian nation that is still unwilling to make full concessions to the new ways they are being strongly encouraged to adopt. It could be anywhere in Asia in the 21st century, but here it is, a good 170 years early. The only mutually understood language by all of these people is a kind of Creole, formed out of the marriage between Cantonese and English, and it is a testament to Ghosh that he not only uses this for huge chunks of dialogue, but makes it easy for his audience to understand.

Our two main characters – Bahram and Neel – are Indians caught up in the opium trade. Bhram is the master of a company that ships opium into China, and Neel is his newly acquired assistant. Between the two of them, we are allowed a glimpse into the ways in which foreigners (by which I mean, the British Empire and the Americans) were conducting the opium trade. On the one hand, they were fully aware of the fact that opium was not a Good Thing, having banned the stuff in their own lands, but they were more than willing to exploit the Chinese market, and sell it there, despite the trade restrictions. I love the indignation of everyone – including Bahram – when the Chinese do an about face, and tell them that, actually, those restrictions will be enforced, and if you don’t comply, heads will roll. Literally. There’s a nice poetic justice to it, though as it turns out, it is not perhaps the best news for Bahram, who is already deep in debt with his investors in India.

I don’t know if Paulette features heavily in the first novel, but in River of Smoke, she seems little more than an excuse for Ghosh to write the letters of Robin Chinnery. I am not really complaining, because these letters are absolutely brilliant, but it does mean Paulette does get sidelined fairly early on in the action. From her promising start as a cross-dressing botanist, to her burgeoning friendship with Fitcher Penrose, a charmingly gruff Scottish botanist, she very quickly disappears off the page, and her name is reduced to nothing more than a destination for Robin’s letters.

But those letters – oh, what a gift they are. There is nowhere else in the novel that highlights the kind of mastery Ghosh has over the English language. Through language alone, he manages to conjur up a (hilariously) camp artist from the 1830s, whose love of men is at once flamboyant and tragic. His quest to find Paulette’s golden camellia sends him on a wild adventure around Canton, meeting a wide variety of people outside of the merchant houses that form the somewhat claustrophobic setting of the other two narrative strands. It also provides him with several potential “Friends”, as he so coyly calls them, and his retellings of his attempts to woo them actually made me laugh out loud on several occasions.

There’s no point in me banging on about how wonderful this novel is any more. Suffice it to say, I’m sold on the Ibis trilogy. I’m sad that I didn’t read them in order, but I will now go out and find Sea of Poppies (once John Murray have given it a better cover), and devour that, too. And I have now joined the long list of people eagerly anticipating the final volume of the trilogy, whenever that may arrive. Needless to say, I hope (and suspect) River of Smoke will make its way onto this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

The Hungry Ghosts (2009) – Anne BERRY

Publishing imprints are strange beasts – for some people they mean nothing, but for others (usually obsessive, like myself), they are vitally important. And they really are, I think. While they may not always get it right, publishers usually publish books in certain imprints depending on where they want to pitch it to the market. HarperCollins’ new imprint, Blue Door, has not even released its first book yet, but if The Hungry Ghosts is anything to go by, I’ll be keeping an eye out.

The Safford family are one of the most important families in British-occupied Hong Kong. Their daughter, Alice, is an unruly child who is always getting into trouble. What her family does not realise, though, is that the reason for this is that she is haunted by a hungry ghost – a 12 year old Chinese girl raped and murdered some twenty years before. As Alice’s life rapidly spirals out of control, more ghosts come to her, and she must try and stop them taking over her life before it is too late.

It took me a while to get into this novel, though I can’t exactly pinpoint the reason for this. When it finally clicked for me, though, I read about three quarters of it in one afternoon. I wonder if the thing that was putting me off was the way the story was told. Each chapter is told from an alternating viewpoint, and many of the chapters are told by incidental characters. This doesn’t mean the story is fragmented – far from it, considering these chapters are very sequential, and we often get the same event told from different points of view. To some extent, Berry does this quite well, and some of the voices are quite distinctive, particularly the Ghost and Myrtle (Alice’s mother), but many of the incidental and more peripheral main characters do tend to blend into one another.

Yet, this fragmented view is a neat trick in a book that centres itself as a family saga. Despite the literary fireworks surrounding some of the magical realism facets, being able to tell a family saga from the point of the view of the entire family is a good idea. To set it against the British occupation of Hong Kong (going all the way up to the handover in 1997) is also a good plan – Berry is clearly writing to her strengths, but the Saffords are clearly very ‘British’, if you get my meaning. They have servants, Ralph (the father) works for the Governor, Myrtle is the perfect socialite in English circles, their children are bundled off to the motherland for a proper education, and it’s all just a little bit colonial. Which makes their inevitable fall tie in quite nicely to the eventual fall of the Safford family, though it is interesting to see that Harry (the son) is actually the one to make it out moderately sane, considering his less than happy childhood.

What makes this book quite unique, though, are the magical realist parts of the novel, Inspired by the Chinese festival Yue Lan, this book takes a simple concept from Chinese Buddhism, and spins an entire novel around it. I like the concept of hungry ghosts – spirits of people and beings that refuse to move on, and instead attach themselves to unsuspecting humans, ruining their lives. These things are clearly dangerous creatures, and as Alice acquires more and more of them, she is weighed down by guilt and depression, forcing her to resort to desperate measures. Thinking of these ghosts, I can see that maybe Berry uses them as a metaphor for something else – Alice is an unwanted child and is subject to all kinds of callous and careless treatment, particular from her mother, who is out to make Alice’s life as difficult as possible. Not on purpose, mind, but she has such contempt and such little patience for Alice’s ways, she takes it out on Alice herself. Perhaps, then, we can see the ghosts she carries as guilt over this childhood, perhaps she feels somewhat responsible for the way she was treated. Either way, these ghosts are causing Alice a great depression, and it is thoroughly believeable – the lead ghost is a malevolent, childish creature that I personally felt little sympathy for. This makes the ending a little hard to swallow, though I think I can see what Berry was trying to do.

If this is the kind of novel Blue Door are going to be publishing regularly, I’d keep a look out. I promise this isn’t a plug for them (even though I keep mentioning them), but this novel is quite good. There are certainly some things that don’t quite fit in, but this is Berry’s first attempt, and I’m very interested to see what she does next.

Tagged , , , , , ,
Advertisements