Barnes, Simon. (1999). Hong Kong Belongers. London: Harper Collins.

Comic novel about Alan Fairs, a young expatriate journalist  in Hong Kong who goes to live on one of the small islands, ‘Tung Lung’, having been given the sack from ‘Hong Kong Times’ for Fleet street style journalism (he then takes a job in a small business magazine). He lives in a flat within a pair of semi-detached houses. The other flats are also inhabited by fly-by-night wastrel expatriates, notably André Standing, a freebooting salesman whose suave exterior hides a hollow interior; Charles Browne, from an upper class expatriate family who constantly evades the attempts of his family to set him up with a respectable job and woman; John Kingston, their landlord, whose idealistic image of the indigenous population of Tung Lung as ‘noble savages’ blinds him to the financial intriguing between two rival local families into which he is drawn.

The novel follows the three younger men (Alan, André and Charles) over the course of a year as they pursue hair-brained get-rich-quick schemes and Chinese women (including a cockney Hong Kong girl), and steadily develop dangerous alcohol habits. Their secure little world is disturbed by the arrival of a young Australian, Jim James, whose Alpha-male characteristics threaten even André’s cool exterior and who eventually takes André’s girl. Charles, meanwhile, having cleaned up his act because he fell in love with a girl his parents approve of, dies in a sailing accident. With the group’s disintegration, Alan meets the young daughter of John Kingston and begins a stormy relationship with her as the year ends.

The frame narrative sees Allan and Jassie (Kingston’s daughter, Jacinta) returning to Tung Lung at the death of John Kingston. Jassie is convinced that he died of a broken heart over the 1997 handover. The subject matter, and to some extent its presentation, is reminiscent of Martin Amis' Money. There is a similar sort of quiet heroising of male incompetence, without ever going so far as to justify it. The narrative voice, while close to Alan, is not always Alan’s and it is hard to tell at times to what extent his orientalised vision of the world and people around him is presented ironically and to what extent the narrative voice participates. If read ironically, as with Amis, the book is a  critique of the San Miguel capitalism of a certain sort of expatriate culture, but there is always a nagging suspicion, as with Aims, of a sneaking hankering for the devil-may-care oblivion presented, which undoes this ironic tone. (KB)


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