Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book 107, Hong Kong: "The Unwalled City" by Xu Xi

I'm currently on holiday in Laos, and on holiday from my reading project. But three hours before I left, I managed to finish off my Hong Kong book! Of course I considered Jin Yong (since he's probably HK's most successful writer), but none of his swordfighting novels take place in the city. Also Eileen Chang, but she only spent a couple of years there, it seems - she was essentially Shanghainese.

But Xu Xi's as Hong Kong as Hong Kong noodles - born and bred and teaches at the university there, though she's hopped around Asia and North America in the course of her career. First met her at the Man Hong Kong Literary Festival in 2007; read her Daughters of Hui and really liked it. 

Wrote to her to ask her which one of her works she'd recommend for this project. Of course, she had to suggest the only one which the National Library doesn't stock. Read this on the Kindle, which I didn't want to run the risk of losing or breaking while backpacking.

But I had trouble with this book at first - truth is, the characters float from scenario to scenario with little visible motive force. They're all these lost, good-looking privileged men and women, living in Hong Kong on the cusp of the 1997 handover. They're not even particularly scared of the prospect of going back to Red China. If I were marking this for my creative writing class, I'd have been asking where the thrust was, what made us *care* for these characters.

Still, as time wore on, the story grew on me. It's interesting reading this in the wake of The Bewitching Braid, or that classic Hong Kong romance The World of Suzie Wong, both of which are about race and class relations clashing, then becoming happily reconciled in an age of colonialism. The Unwalled City is determinedly postcolonial - no, that word fails to encapsulate the theme: it is post-postcolonial, occupying a world where global capitalism has collapsed the importance of race and gender.

Look at Colleen, a white Bostonian who speaks Mandarin and Cantonese, married to a Hong Kong Chinese guy but having affairs with loads of men, white and Asian. Look at Gail Szeto, divorcee offspring of an American pilot and a Hong Kong prostitute who's climbed her way to the top of the corporate ladder, caring for her senile mother and more Chinese-than-ever son Gu Kwun. Look at Vince, the Brooklyn photographer and low-caste expat who goes from being an HK newbie to a Cantonese-spouting old hand; Andanna/Lei You Fun who dumps her jazz career to become a Cantopop singer.

These figures whose lives intersect, whose actions frustrate one another (Xu Xi will shift perspectives from one character to the next without warning, so that the follies and misperceptions of the characters are clearly visible to us). They have affairs and dates and epiphanies, but nothing happens, not really, we don't know where their lives are going by the closing chapter as Andanna sings on the stage of the handover ceremony.

The story drifts. We drift. The characters drift, even geographically, from Wan Chai to Singapore to Shanghai to New York. Is this how tales are told today? With no deaths, no marriages, no births, with only pre-planned unhistorical historical events? I'm thinking aloud, of course. Just wondering how people do it - put enough words together, call it a novel. 

Me, I can't finish writing anything right now. Ah well. Maybe the nights in Laos will inspire me.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map
Representative quote: "You are privileged to be here in our city at this moment of historical change." Albert spoke as if he were some kind of elder statesman for Hong Kong, with a possessiveness that conferred distinction to utterances on high. "In a way, Vincent, you are in a slightly better position than some to appreciate it because you originate from a city that once almost defined a new order for what a city was and should be. Of course, New York is somewhat passé now."

Proclaimed not as an opinion but as a fact.

Next book: Chu T'ien-wen's Notes of a Desolate Man, from Taiwan.

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