Historical Fiction

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Coates, Austin. The Road. (1959). New York: Harpers and Brothers, rpt. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009.

The Road, set in post-war 1950s Hong Kong, chronicles with dark irony the failures of colonial modernity and progress, and the tragic outcomes of a benevolent colonial authority unable to fully comprehend local realities. The novel interweaves this critique of colonial governance with the troubled personal life of District Officer Richard Fairburn who is the man at the centre of a controversial project to build the first major road on Great Island (identifiable as Lantau). While Richard struggles to manage an unconventionally ‘liberal’ marriage with his celebrity-writer wife Sylvia Gracechurch, his road building project results in disrupting the lives of intended beneficiaries culminating in the tragic deaths of two young village lovers. The road, conceived as a vector of modernity and progress for impoverished village communities, becomes the means through which corrupt low-ranking Chinese bureaucrats and big city capitalists exploit the villagers. In his depictions of colonial hierarchy, the social boundaries of expatriate existence, and the codes that the ruling class live by in order to maintain appearances of authority, Coates is a worthy successor to Somerset Maugham, and forerunner of Harry Ricketts. His observations, embedded in fictional narrative, are perhaps not as critical as those of the other two authors but as a civil servant, he may not have as much of their outsider license.

Richard, one of the few Chinese-speaking officials in the colony takes a passionate interest when the acting governor Frederick flippantly proposes the idea of a road on Great Island. The road is supposed to link a number of villages on the island to Wireless Bay from where villagers can have access to the much better developed Little Island (Cheng Chau). At the time the road is proposed, the villagers are subsistence farmers.  Richard and other officials misinterpret the local economics and believe the road will encourage cash crop cultivation. When the road project becomes known, local entrepreneur Wong Tak-wor begins covertly purchasing land along the proposed route. Richard tries to stop Wong but becomes hopelessly ensnared in a web of intrigue created by Interpreter Leung, Richard’s local assistant who is in league with Wong. Richard’s position becomes further complicated when Interpreter Leung blackmails Richard by getting him to sleep with one of Wong’s concubines during an estrangement with his wife Sylvia. One of the main interests of the narrative is in Richard’s relations with the Chinese villagers on the island. The road project has a mixed reception among the villagers, to some it means, as Sylvia claims, the uprooting of tradition and community bonds but this is by no means a united stance.  

Initially keen to block the road project because of its manipulation by Wong, Richard is forced accede to it to avoid public humiliation. The road building project also becomes tied to  another dimension of Richard’s role as colonial administrator when he intercedes in a family conflict where Ah Fai, a young village boy, wants to be released from his commitment to an unconsummated traditional marriage. Interpreter Leung promotes the breakup of the marriage because the financial loss resulting from it would make the bride’s family more willing to sell their land to Wong. Richard, unaware of these complications, rules in favour of Ah Fai. 

The road project goes ahead and becomes a priority to the colonial government because of the need to build a reservoir on Great Island to supply the growing water demand in the city. However, the reservoir will displace two villages including the one in which Ah Fai lives. Richard realizes that relocation will further impoverish the villagers but is helpless to intervene. In a bitterly ironic scene, Richard uses what is left of his goodwill with the villages to stop a protest and convince them to relocate.

During the villagers’ protest, Richard  saves Ah Fai whom the villagers mistakenly associate with Richard and, in turn,  the road and reservoir plans. Richard witnesses a scene where Ah Fai is beaten almost to death by his own father because of his perceived betrayal of the village. This sequence, more than any other in the novel, presents traditional Chinese society as inscrutable to the western gaze—there is a surreal quality to the scene where the father is surrounded by passive but complicit villagers as he beats Ah Fai.  But in a classic liberal-colonial dilemma, Richard hesitates to intervene where he witnesses injustice because it is supposedly an entirely Chinese affair. Richard subsequently gives the boy shelter, and Ah Fai secretly smuggles in the girl he wanted to marry. When discovered, Ah Fai runs away from Richard’s house but is unable to return to his village and also faces revenge from the girl’s uncle. Ah Fai and the girl commit suicide by drowning in the reservoir—an obvious allusion to the overall tragedy associated with the road and reservoir. The ending of the novel depicts the road and reservoir being opened amidst fanfare with most of the colonial officials impervious to how their progressive efforts have resulted in tragedy. The story ends with Richard and Sylvia relocating to London and Richard being ironically conferred an OBE for his services to the colony. 

Perhaps the keyword for Coates in the novel is ‘society’. He sees two dimensions to this: society as rules, protocols, and rigid morals which constrain the individual and censure those who infringe; society as sociality where these morals circulate and form the basis of how people judge and decide whether or not to associate with each other. Sociality is often enacted in gossip, rumour, innuendo. It is culture-specific, but can also be found in both expatriate groups and  traditional villages in far-flung offshore islands. Questions of class, and the creation and circulation of wealth through legitimate business and corruption are common to both colonial and indigenous societies. So too is the need for management and governance, of the self and of others. From this perspective, which supplements the conflict narrative of colonizer vs. colonized,  Coates’ novel also shows the interconnections between colonizer and colonized at both the structural level of ‘society’ and in their everyday life. The road is the trope of this interconnection.  (EH and HR)

 
 
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