Historical Fiction

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Chan, Lily. (1986). Struggle of a Hong Kong Girl. New York: Vantage Press.

The Hong Kong girl is Cheung Mo-ying. This novel tells her life story, from her arrival in Hong Kong as a child, until the nineteen-sixties when she is a successful woman in her mid-forties.

The story begins with the arrival from the mainland of Cheung Shu-ping, his wife Kwok-nui and their young daughter Mo-ying. It is some time in the nineteen-twenties. Shu-ping quickly loses all his savings at the mah-jong tables and the family is reduced to penury; he has to work as a coolie. Kwok-nui, understandably embittered, then pins all her hopes on her pretty daughter, and brings her up in the hope that she will attract the attention of a rich Hong Kong man. When Mo-ying is a teenager her mother is in the habit of taking her to Caine Road and instructing her to wander about until she catches someone’s eye.

Sure enough, she is spotted by a glamorous young playboy, Chan Yat-sing, and a relationship of a sort ensues. She is fifteen, he ten years older. She falls in love with him – this love story is one of the main themes of the novel – and he lavishes presents and money gifts on her. But Yat-sing’s servant or secretary, Ng Fung-chow, reveals that his employer is already married. Mo-ying rejects Ng’s proposal that they join forces to fleece and blackmail Yat-sing.

Pressured by her greedy mother to take advantage of Yat-sing, and with no prospect of marrying him, Mo-ying despairs and attempts suicide by jumping into the harbour. Yat-sing now sets her up in an apartment in Happy Valley as if she were his mistress, but rather than a sexual relationship (as a married man he has moral scruples about this) he offers instead to see to her education. “Since I can’t marry you, I don’t want to encroach on your purity,” he tells her – though she is ready to offer what he is too gentlemanly to take, and on one occasion (the narrative is rather coy on this point) he seems to accept.

For the rest of the story Yat-sing moves in and out of the action, sometimes spending months or years away from Hong Kong, sometimes living in the colony but out of contact (she never blames him for these serial desertions). With his financial support, Mo-ying attends a convent school, struggles to learn English, and is introduced to Western culture. Suddenly it is 1941 and the Japanese have invaded. Mo-ying becomes a trader, trafficking luxury Hong Kong goods across the border and selling them at great profit, and later diversifying into gold and property. Though there are hardships, she could be said to have a good war. And though there are other offers, she remains faithful to Yat-sing.

When the war is over she returns to Hong Kong and devotes herself to study. Her money runs out and she takes in two women lodgers, who both end up in suicide. This is certainly a man’s world. Mo-ying, now destitute again, goes to live for several years in a cave in a hillside at Hunghom, emerging – sometimes dressed as a man – to study and write in public libraries. She finally meets with success as a writer, has stories accepted by a newspaper, publishes a best-seller, and achieves world recognition. She buys a mink coat, enters cultured society, and re-established contact with Yat-sing, who congratulates her on her success. Though they are deep in love as ever, he then sends her a letter saying he must choose his wife and family over her, and can never see her again. Here the story ends.

Though it covers a span of nearly fifty years, Struggle of a Hong Kong Girl is surprisingly thin on historical detail and reflection, with its relentless focus on the fortunes and feelings of its heroine. The narrative does not have much rhythm, and is slowed further by very long slabs of not always interesting dialogue. There are a few moments in this novel, however, when through Struggle of a Hong Kong Girl can be perceived a wider and more compelling story, the struggle of Hong Kong.

(DK)

 
 
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