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For Hong Kong, Literature Imitates Life

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 31 1997; Page A17

The Communists were coming; they were almost here.—"The Last Six Million Seconds" by John Burdett

The lowering of the British flag loomed somewhere in the recesses of the mind of most everyone who did business in the boiling capitalistic cauldron that was Hong Kong.—"Hong Kong, China" by Ralph Arnote

The Handover: They called it Chinese Take-away, and it was now the old refrain.—"Kowloon Tong" by Paul Theroux


The coming British retreat at midnight on June 30 and the reversion of Hong Kong to rule by the Communist Chinese mainland has spawned a plethora of handover memorabilia -- T-shirts, buttons, lapel pins with alternating Chinese and British flags, even Chinese pop-music cassettes and a new brand of mainland cigarettes, called, predictably, "1997."

So it seems only logical that fiction writers and publishing houses are hurrying to cash in on the handover fever, rushing into print a dizzying array of new titles -- action adventures, detective yarns, period pieces -- all set against the backdrop of what promises here to be the event of the decade.

"It began a few years ago," said P.K. Leung, a poet and literature professor at Hong Kong University. "For the past decade, there's been this interest in the transition. Now the media is focusing on Hong Kong. And even the commercial novelists like to find a popular issue."

Some of the latest titles on the shelves include "The Last Six Million Seconds," by the lawyer and sometimes author John Burdett, which boasts on its jacket to be "a Gorky Park for the Pacific Rim" and "the ultimate Hong Kong 1997 novel."

"Thirty miles north, there lives 1.4 billion people whose collective attention was focused on Hong Kong just two months before its reversion to rule by the People's Republic of China," Burdett writes in his fast-paced thriller about a Eurasian detective named Chan who has just 6 million seconds to complete an investigation into a gory murder. "It was like living in a spiritual wind tunnel," he writes. "You could feel the pressure of uncontainable envy, loathing and longing pressing in from over the border."

Not to mention the pressure of fierce competition for handover novels, which are crowding each other out on bookstore shelves here.

Also recently released is "Hong Kong, China," by the traveler and author Ralph Arnote, making his hardcover debut. The book's jacket touts it as "a sizzling novel of love, greed and revenge, set against the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong in 1997!" The novel opens with Davy Wong, a Chinese pro-democracy dissident from Beijing's Tiananmen Square protests, escaping over the border into Hong Kong, and includes such characters as the evil General Liu Wing of the People's Liberation Army.

Liu Wing?

"And who, pray tell, is that?," our hero, the wealthy industrialist Brandon Poole, asks Davy Wong.

"He is in Hong Kong," a frightened Wong replies. "He has a specialty which he learned in Tibet. It is occupation, and the elimination of resistance."

Frightening stuff.

And some other thrillers, released earlier, are finding more shelf space as the handover nears -- books by veteran authors such as Peter Maas ("China White"), Colin Falconer ("Triad") and the earliest of all, Justin Scott ("Nine Dragons").

One of the best-known names in fiction trying to cash in on the Hong Kong handover fervor is the prolific travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux, author of such classics as "The Great Railway Bazaar" and "The Mosquito Coast."

Theroux, a longtime traveler in Asia, has weighed in with a just-released novel, "Kowloon Tong," about a couple of stereotypical British colonials: "Bunt" Mullard and his domineering mother Betty. Though longtime residents of Hong Kong, theirs is a quaint and quintessentially British world; Betty Mullard, for example, displays over her sideboard a portrait of Queen Elizabeth even larger than that of Betty's late husband.

The Mullards, mother and son, are thoroughly dislikable protagonists. They refer to mainland Chinese as "Chinky-Chinks," they hate Chinese food, they find the Cantonese language a grating, incomprehensible clatter, and they stock their house with all British-made products, down to the English-made Roberts radio. To them, the handover is simply "Chinese Take-away."

Theroux's addition to the great handover book stakes was recently and roundly trashed in the colony's venerable English-language daily newspaper, the South China Morning Post. In a review, a Post critic took issue with Theroux's stereotypes, a narrow view of Hong Kong skewed mainly toward the hooker bars of Mong Kok, and for some errors of simple geography -- like placing the Mullards' textile factory in Kowloon Tong, a neighborhood that long has been designated for residential use.

"Are the streets crawling with Chinese and Filipino call girls?" asked reviewer Kevin Kwong. "Why do such a disservice to the place that is my home? Simply to cash in on pre-handover world interest? Why bother writing a book that has nothing new or interesting to say, while there are hundreds more of these cheap thrillers about Hong Kong in airport book shops?"

For the record, "Kowloon Tong" is not the only quick-hit handover book to play loose with the facts. For example, Arnote, in his preface to "Hong Kong, China," writes that after the colony's reversion to Chinese rule in July, "There will be a British governor for another 50 years."

Really? Hong Kong's China-appointed chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, might be startled to discover a British governor hanging around after June 30.

Still, Hong Kongers seem to be approaching their newfound fame with a kind of bemused detachment. Some say they do not read any books about Hong Kong by gweilo, or foreign, authors, because they are never very realistic.

"I'm not interested," said Mandy Chow, an arts coordinator for the local Youth Arts Festival who went to college in the United States. She thinks such books likely would be "very superficial." She added, "I would rather go see the Howard Stern movie."

Said P.K. Leung, "If you continue to repeat all these stereotypes, it's as if you're looking at Hong Kong, but you don't really see Hong Kong, the real Hong Kong."

Just wait until the 6,000 foreign journalists get here.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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