Clavell, James. (1981).  Noble House. New York: Hodder and Stoughton.

Last in the series of Clavell’s Asian sagas, Noble House continues the story of the fictional Struan family legacy of Tai-pan (1964). Set during the 1960s cold-war period, the text positions Hong Kong as a pivotal geopolitical entity in the global balance of power. This is set in the context of fear of soviet world hegemony, Hong Kong as a unique experiment in East-West economic and cultural relations, and the contrast between what is seen as a British colonial-derived form of capitalism with long standing traditions and  a more faceless and impersonal American capitalism.

Noble House shares basic similarities with Tai-pan in imagining Hong Kong. There is an Orientalist wonderland quality to the narrative which is most apparent in the western male subject’s ability to enjoy uninhibited sexual freedom. . Prostitution and the practice of maintaining mistresses are rationalised as normative customs in an exotic eastern culture. The uncertainties thrown up by Hong Kong’s largely unregulated financial system also seem to be part of this narrative in so far as they offer the canny western male unconventional and exciting opportunities for making money not available within more regulated systems. The economic hardships of ordinary Hong Kong people are chronicled in passing. More often, they are shown as innate gamblers drawn to the rags-to-riches potential of the colony. The novel, like many others of its kind, implies that westerners in Hong Kong are only doing what the locals would like to do anyway. .

As in Tai-Pan,   the opening sees Noble House, the trading house founded by Dirk Struan, facing a crippling crisis. The man who bears the responsibility of saving Noble House, and along with it Hong Kong’s financial stability, is Ian Dunross, a direct descendant of Dirk Struan. The Struan-Brock feud established in Tai-pan continues in Noble House through competition between Quillian Gornt, a descendant of Brock, and Dunross. Gornt attempts to exploit Noble House’s weak financial standing to acquire it while American millionaire, Lincoln Bartlett, attempts to manipulate both Gornt and Dunross to take control of Noble House for himself.

A number of sub-plots play out against this main plot. British and American intelligence operatives attempt to expose a well-established Russian spy ring in Hong Kong. Dunross, in possession of secret papers given to him by a senior British intelligence officer, uses this knowledge to benefit the colony. The presence of a PRC mole in the Hong Kong police force adds a further dimension to the espionage sub-plot.

Four Fingers Wu, a Chinese underworld figure, attempts to force Dunross into using Struan ships for drug smuggling. Wu acquires one half of a coin that binds the Tai-pan of Noble House to an ancient pledge to grant assistance to the bearer—a pledge made by Dirk Struan to Jin-Qua, the Chinese trader, as part of the financing deal that saves Noble House in Tai-pan. The Hong Kong banking system teeters on the edge of collapse as mass panic withdrawals result from the fear that Noble House, its banking arm and other allied financial institutions will fail.

The labyrinthine plot lines of the novel converge in a final sequence where a devastating mud slide destroys part of Hong Kong Island. Four Fingers Wu dies in the mudslide, leaving his Harvard-educated son Paul Choy free to negotiate with Dunross for a financial deal that sees Wu’s financial legacy becoming legitimate. By this time, Dunross has solved part of his financial crisis through Japanese funding, and Bartlett’s death allows Casey Tcholok, the American’s business partner and  would-be-lover, to deal with Dunross.

Dunross also uses his secret knowledge to secure a deal with British intelligence that sees Brian Kwok, the PRC mole, being repatriated to China in return for a half-billion dollar injection of capital to the Hong Kong banking system, saving it from insolvency. Gornt’s designs at acquiring Noble House are frustrated and Dunross emerges as a benevolent and heroic figure, firmly reinscribing the Struan/Noble House legacy.  (HR)

Clavell’s two blockbuster novels have generated many imitations, some of which are summarized in the “Adventure” section. Indeed, the two novels can be cross-listed in the two sections. The generic term, adventure, indicates  that the novels rehearse a well-known protagonist type and follow a more-or-less formulaic plot of conflict and resolution, trial and triumph. In focusing on two of Hong Kong’s most historically important moments – its earlier founding as colony and more recent modernity – Clavell’s novels are much more ambitious in scope than most of the others before or after. Rather than treat Hong Kong just as setting or backdrop which so many adventure novels do, both Tai-pan  and Noble House exploit crucial local events eg. the malaria epidemic, cold war, 1960s riots, the bank run etc., as the theatre of action for the protagonists and also as turning points in the plot. Through the clever orchestration of history, event, and character, the novels appear to offer something that is really and authentically Hong Kong even as its adventure story, with its larger than life male protagonists, appeals to the populist appetite for the formulaic.

There are many interesting and revealing points of comparison between Clavell’s two novels and Shih Su-Ching’s City of the Queen: A Novel of Colonial Hong Kong, originally published in Chinese and then translated into English. A paperback edition of the English translation by Sylvia Li-chun Lin and Howard Goldblatt has been published by Hong Kong University Press, 2008.  (EH)


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