1997 Narratives

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Alexander, Jan. (1997). Getting to Lamma. Hong Kong: Asia 2000.

Getting to Lamma belongs to a category of texts that can be called “1997 narratives”. These are stories written prior to 1997 that look at the impending handover of the British colony to Chinese rule with varying degrees of apprehension and anxiety. Getting to Lamma is primarily about a woman’s journey of self discovery which takes her from America to Shanghai and Hong Kong. The narrative self-consciously attempts to distance itself from an overtly orientalist tradition of imaging China and Hong Kong prevalent in much of journalese and popular fiction. But its chief protagonist, Madeline Fox, is also an aspiring journalist and photographer who wants to experience the kind of thrill-seeking that is usually the preserve of western men travelling to Asia. Madeline’s journeys are driven partly by the desire to escape the childhood memories of a sexually abusive father and a dysfunctional mother who never stood up for herself.

Arriving in Hong Kong amidst the uncertainties of the count-down to 1997, she moves to Shanghai to work as an English teacher. A chance encounter in the city leads to a close friendship with a former Tiananmen dissident, Tian He Li (David). David is looking for a way out of China and Madeline, who is attracted to him, is tempted to offer him the traditional route out through marriage. However, Allison, another teacher at the Foreign Languages College,  infatuated with the subversive romanticism of helping David, pre-empts Madeline. However, the text seems to distance itself from the patronizing  discourse of western agents rescuing Chinese victims. Through Madeline, readers are given a critical commentary on the possible self-serving reasons why Allison and others help David.

Madeline too moves back to Hong Kong and resumes a somewhat desperate affair with her one time lover Steve. When Steve leaves Hong Kong, Madeline finds herself without a place to stay and also looses her temporary job as an editor.  From this point onwards, the narrative charts a process whereby  Madeline finds independence, fulfilment and a new life on Lamma. She finds a job, helps David bring his mother to Hong Kong and also helps him eventually to migrate to America. A single sexual encounter with David also leads to Madeline having a child whom she raises with the help of David’s mother without David’s knowledge. The child is presented as a kind of culmination for Madeline’s quest for fulfilment.

The text features some of the uncertainties that characterise fiction on the 1997 handover but it is not apocalyptic in vision. It establishes a critical view towards communism in China from the outset because Madeline, even as a child, is suspicious of her mother’s naïve belief in an egalitarian communist China. It depicts Shanghai not as a glamorous modern city but as a city struggling with urban squalor produced by China’s capitalist aspirations. Hong Kong is also seen as overcrowded and polluted but the text presents  this as part of big city life the world over. The depiction of Chinese characters in the text also avoids common stereotypes and attempts to depict them as fully-realized figures. (HR)

 

 
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