Davis, John Gordon (1974). The Year of the Hungry Tiger. London: Michael Joseph.
It is the Year of the Hungry Tiger in China, and thousands of Chinese are pouring across the Hong Kong border to escape from the famine and disorder of Mao Tse-Tung’s disastrous Great Leap Forward. The Hong Kong police struggle to capture and return the refugees, but there are simply too many of them, and besides the Chinese authorities and the People’s Liberation Army are happy to be rid of them, and to add to the security, welfare, and housing headaches of the colonial government.
One of the best features of Davis’ The Year of the Hungry Tiger is his description of this period in Hong Kong’s history, when on the mainland the Great Leap Forward was succeeded by the Cultural Revolution, seen through the eyes of his harassed but sympathetic English police inspector, Jake McAdam. The foreground of the novel is Jake’s story, though at times it is almost overwhelmed by the detail of the background. Davis, or McAdam as narrator, is all too ready to dilate on current affairs, and give his views on the British, the Chinese, the heunggongyan, the colony and the revolution, communism and capitalism. It is a colonial point of view, but a shrewd and well-informed one. The result is a novel with a certain didactic odour, and very wordy, but a piece of colonial fiction of value to readers interested in knowing what it was like to live in the colony through these years so critical for China, years which also saw the foundation for Hong Kong’s quarter-century of prosperity leading up to the change of flag in 1997.
Jake is an up-and-coming British policeman by profession, and an amateur painter. He has a family background on the China coast. He served in Malaya, fighting the communists in the Emergency, then took a degree in political philosophy and wrote a sympathetic book about the Chinese Revolution. Naturally when he came to Hong Kong he was posted to Special Branch, but when this story begins he is in Special Investigations, but soon finds himself doing service on the border, trying to deal with the flood of refugees. His marriage is in trouble, his wife Catherine has taken up with another man, and soon she moves back to England, taking their young daughter with her, and promising a divorce.
Jake forms an unlikely friendship with a young Chinese woman, Tsang Ying-ling, a teacher of art at the Tai Ping (Great Peace) school, one of the communist schools that flourished in Hong Kong under the tolerant eye of the colonial government. She is attractive and well-educated, they go on excursions, described at length, together on his junk or in his car; eventually they become lovers, and in due course – since he cannot take her to the Hermitage, the government quarters where he lives – he rents a flat in Wanchai where they can be together. Jake wants to marry her when his divorce comes through. But she is not only a teacher in a communist school, but herself a communist. His liaison with her would be seen as a security risk, especially if he’s posted back to sensitive political work with Special Branch. An interideological marriage might put an end to his career; she, on the other hand, is not willing to give up her job or her principles.
In the middle of all this there is rather a good typhoon. There is a run on the banks, a killer landslide. Over the border the Cultural Revolution begins, followed by riots in Macau.
Jake is promoted and sent back to Special Branch. Ying is sent to the mainland with a delegation from her school, and the cultural revolution comes to Hong Kong in the form of unrest and violence. Soon, Jake is having to contain riots, and later the campaign of bombing. There are excellent chapters here, on the riots as seen and experienced by the police. This is a rare modality in Hong Kong literature, indeed in any kind of fiction. Though he is perhaps over-fond of the participial string - heaving crying howling hitting fighting etc – Davis is pretty good at evoking the struggle and confusion of dangerous volatile crowds.
When Ying returns from China, Jake learns the communists mean to blackmail him because of their affair: an informant who is a Superintendent in Special Branch would be a valuable asset. There is an attempted escape by boat, a capture, and things end badly for Ying and Jake.
For the love story, which occupies a good deal of the space of this novel, Davis is rarely able to find a language that gets beyond the fairly hackneyed breathlessness of romantic fiction. But his action scenes are very good, and there is great deal of information here, observed from the point of view of a well-informed and fairly sympathetic colonial insider, about a critical time for China and for Hong Kong.
Jake McAdam’s adventures continue in Typhoon, the sequel to this novel. (DK)