1997 Narratives

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Barker, Dennis. (2008). The Clients of Miss May. London: Quartet Books.

The Clients of Miss May, set in 1996 pre-handover Hong Kong, rehearses a number of themes that appear with predictable regularity in anglophone fiction about the “East” or the “Orient”. Ranging from the colonial fiction of Rudyard Kipling to Paul Theroux’s Kowloon Tong,  these narratives re-articulate the ambitious (often disastrous) consequences of naive liberal western (often male) agency attempting to save an (often feminized) East from itself. Barker’s text is firmly situated within this tradition of anglophone writing which is reflected in its cast of an inscrutable Chinese prostitute, a noble-minded but naïve sailor, a cynical British journalist,  a benevolent but authoritarian Chinese tycoon, and shadowy underworld thugs.

Sandy Britton, a callow and inexperienced Lieutenant aboard the HMS War Lion, falls in love with a Wanchai prostitute his world-weary journalist friend Tom Webster patronizes regularly. The woman, May Fong, has a troubled family history. Sandy is enamored by her beauty and intrigued by her past, and a paternalistic impulse in him wants to help May even though this help is neither solicited nor welcome. Tom repeatedly warns Sandy against involvement with May. Tom’s cautionary advice is partially vindicated by the tragic end of the novel—an ending that reinforces the idea that western entanglement in eastern society has costly consequences for both sides.

May has a wealthy Chinese tycoon, Mr Hok, as a regular customer. Hok wants May to enter into a long-term arrangement with him and give up her other clients. This offer is something May has to  consider seriously because as Hok warns her - and Sandy and Tom believe - in post-1997 Hong Kong, Europeans will have little influence. In order to entice May into accepting the offer, Hok offers her  the chance of reuniting with her mother who is working in a commune in Canton. Hok also ropes in Sandy to his scheme by suggesting that Sandy accompany May to Canton, because he himself cannot go for fear of the Chinese authorities. Sandy accepts the offer but the trip to Canton turns into a disaster when they discover the mother is actually the Party Representative of the commune. May’s mother denounces her and vehemently rejects the money given by Hok  on May’s behalf. A devastated May has a public fight with Sandy. Back in Hong Kong, another violent showdown occurs. May tries to stab Sandy, and runs out onto the street where one of her triad minders kills her with a meat cleaver as retribution for stealing money owed to them.

Sandy witnesses the death and the novel ends with Sandy attempting to rationalize whether he was responsible for May’s death and the moral complexities of this choice. This main  narrative is  interwoven with a short narrative from the past where similar characters with similar names in 1840s Hong Kong experience a similar tragic set of events. In the past, however, the Sandy-like figure (Billy Britton) is an especially cruel British naval officer who delights in punishing Chinese prisoners and May is again a prostitute who develops an inexplicable and degrading devotion to Billy, whom she believes will take her to London. Despite numerous and harsh rejections by Billy, May dies trying to defend Billy from being killed by her brother. In quoting this earlier incident, the novel supposedly makes the point that history repeats itself. Repetitive just as well describes the novel’s own view on east-west relations. (HR)

 

 
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