1997 Narratives




Elegant, Robert. (1997).  Last Year in Hong Kong. New York: William Morrow and Company.

Robert Elegant’s novel, like many texts within this broad category, looks at the handover with uncertainty and attempts to anticipate the shape of Hong Kong under Chinese rule. One of its main scenarios  is  that of an opportunistic and rapacious alliance between local big business and Beijing, which is seen as already forming. H.K. Lam and T.Y. Lee, two peripheral but important characters in the novel, represent opposing ends of this emerging politico-economic confluence. Both are British educated local tycoons who thrived under British rule but while Lam is willing and eager to adapt to the emerging status quo, Lee retains a kind of “principled” opposition.

 The main plot of the novel, however, is built around the romantic relationship between Lucretia Barnes and Dorje Rabnet. Barnes, an American woman, recently divorced from the wealthy Hong Kong British lawyer Lawrence Barnes, is struggling to survive after having enjoyed a short but privileged lifestyle among Hong Kong’s super elite. Lucretia sees her former husband and elite society  as a greedy comprador class that presents a façade of gentility. The text attempts to counter this by depicting  T.Y. Lee as  a kind of benevolent and upright businessman.  Dorje Rabnet (Robbie), in contrast, is posited in the text as an  intermediary figure more representative of a Hong Kong discourse of  diversity. Born in Hong Kong of mixed British and Tibetan lineage, Robbie’s English education at West Island School and Imperial College, London  was paid for by the generous T.Y. Lee. Robbie is seen as someone who partly belongs to and is in touch with the “real” Hong Kong.  He promises Lucretia that he will show her this “real” Hong Kong, a promise that the text also holds out for its readers. But  other than  his dilapidated apartment in Wanchai and a few references to his familiarity with the Cantonese language and cuisine, both he and the text fail to deliver on their promise in any significant manner.

Lucretia’s and Robbie’s relationship is threatened  because of  his secret involvement with the Tibetan independence movement. This is partly because Lucretia freely associates with pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong while Robbie tries to maintain a pro-Beijing disguise to be effective as a Tibetan undercover agent. But more significantly, Robbie feels bound to preserve his Tibetan cultural legacy which means a traditional Tibetan marriage. These personal and political issues reach a climax with Robbie visiting Tibet a few months prior to the handover leaving Lucretia uncertain of their future. She subsequently hears he died in a bus accident (engineered by the Chinese military) but in reality has survived the accident and  is on his way back to Hong Kong to be reunited with Lucretia.  By this time, Robbie has also decided that his allegiance to Tibet does not necessitate an enforced marriage, and the two look towards a united future and a commitment to remain in Hong Kong. But this is not to be - returning from Macau Robbie dies in a freak hydrofoil accident.  . In this thwarting of a happy ending, the text delivers an implicit doomsday warning for Hong Kong diversity post-1997.   (HR)


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