1997 Narratives



























General Introduction

This website introduces readers to writing in the English language about Hong Kong. It is first launched on August 10, 2010 with a listing of over 100 titles and their outline summaries. Most of the titles are novels. The website will be updated from time to time with more entries which will include poetry anthologies.

The novels currently listed here can be broadly divided into two types: those written for popular entertainment, and those written for readers seeking a better understanding of   Hong Kong’s complexity as place, its history, society and people. Most novels about Hong Kong fall into the first category, far outnumbering those in the second. Even more unusual  is fiction that captivates because it combines qualities of both. Visitors to the website will be able to  identify from the summary which category a particular title belongs to.  

The novels are grouped under six generic headings: “Adventure”, “Children’s Literature and the Child in Literature”, “Gothic”, “Historical”, “Romance”, “1997 Narratives”. To a large extent, these headings are self-selected, that is to say, many titles do show dominant characteristics of one or another genre. The largest number of anglophone Hong Kong fictions can be grouped under “Adventure” which also coincides with the first category of popular entertainment. “Hong Kong” in such fiction is little more than an exoticized setting, ‘fragrant harbour, city of sin and death’, as one literary historian puts it. Here we find the western protagonist-hero – and the odd heroine – becoming entangled with assorted spies, criminals, shady businessmen, corrupt policemen, and oriental sirens. Suave or muscular, world-weary and streetwise, the hero’s progress, though at times dubious, is never finally in serious doubt. Change “Hong Kong” for any other tropical Asian place-name, and Chinese for another Asian ethnicity, and most of these stories would probably be not much different. Seasoned readers of stories about Asia produced during the colonial period and their more recent successors will easily recognize the “Adventure” novel.

For less experienced readers, a working knowledge of such fiction can be quite useful. In becoming familiar with their typical qualities, a reader can then select the better than average among them. He or she can also identify the overlap between “Adventure” and other genres, for example, “Gothic”, “Romance”, “1997 Narratives”. Most importantly, readers can develop a basis on which to make critical judgments about the imaginative and linguistic merit that necessarily marks the texts of distinction.  This website aims to provide newer readers with this working knowledge, and to serve the more experienced as a guide to discerning reading.   

The titles listed cover an historical span of over a hundred years, from the turn of the twentieth century to the early twenty-first century. During this time, Hong Kong has witnessed tumultuous regional and global changes. But except for the Japanese occupation during World War Two, Hong Kong has been largely spared from the tragedies of war-torn China, the exigencies of anti-colonial and post-colonial struggles, the battlefields of the cold war, the trauma of the Cultural Revolution. These events feature as historical backdrop in much of anglophone Hong Kong fiction which, by and large, tends to focus away from them and, more generally, from geopolitical subject matter. In this, Hong Kong’s particular history has caused such writing to differ from an important strand of world anglophone fiction where colonial resistance and decolonization have inspired some of the greatest writers.

Attending to the manners and mores of colonial society, “Romance” is a genre popular among anglophone Hong Kong writers. Lovers’ escapades often present a mirror complement to the adventurers’ exploits, and readers are invited to spot the rare anglophone Hong Kong novel that uses romance as a platform for criticizing the narrow provincial morality and excessive social privilege of colonial lives. Inter-racial romance is a very popular sub-theme, and where it is sensitively handled, the orientalist tableau of Butterfly-meets-Pinkerton is disassembled to allow a glimpse of women’s hardship and gender trouble in local habitats. 

Another genre that overlaps with “Adventure” is the “Gothic”. Here, the heroes or heroines are  opposed or aided by supernatural intervention acting through ghostly agents, or encounter phenomena and experiences that cannot be explained except with reference to another world or the netherworld. The perception of China as an ancient culture opens up a storehouse of superstititious beliefs and mysterious archaic practices to titillate both orientalist authors and readers. Good spirits and evil demons have always battled it out in anglophone Hong Kong fiction. For the more perceptive, the “Gothic” is a medium to probe the psychopathology of a “Hong Kong” variously haunted and possessed by powerful colonialist, nativist, and capitalist forces.

Children’s stories are not protected from ghostly interferences. For teaching and extra-curricular reading materials, visitors to the website will find many titles in the “Children’s literature and the Child in Literature” section. Again, the adventure plot looms large in this section. This is to be expected generally of children’s literature  but it is so prevalent in what is supposedly adult popular fiction that it makes one wonder whether such fiction is popular precisely because of its appeal to infantalist desires. Many of the stories add an ethnographic gloss by placing the children in Chinese households and everyday Hong Kong life. One can see this as orientalism given an early start, enhancing local cultural awareness in the young, or as attempts to locate fantasy as closely as possible in the child’s immediate environment.

These attempts have produced some of the most interesting narratives of the “Child in Literature” in which the child’s growing up years coincide with different historical periods in Hong Kong’s last half-century. The child’s perspective is the means by which the adult authors can insinuate their individual view on the past, including their own. History becomes the site on which memory works its magic or plays its tricks. Seen through the child’s eyes, the past is kept at a distance, made objective, estranged.  At the same time, the child’s relative lack of self-consciousness creates an effect of spontaneity that brings back vividly details of past actions, scenes, and events. The best “Child in Literature” narratives can persuade readers who think they are familiar with Hong Kong history to reconsider what they know.

It is in the category of “Historical” fiction that some of the most panoramic of Hong Kong stories are told. Often spanning the colonial period, these stories present larger-than-life characters that could make or break Hong Kong, and family fortunes that rise and fall with the colony’s every changing course. 1997, as an invitation to summarize Hong Kong’s history in a single story, has proved irresistable to many writers and their publishers. Some of the least appealing historical and adventure fiction was written with the handover as backdrop and market opportunity in mind. How well history is worked into the drama of the narrative tells the difference between the grandiose page-turner and the truly epical. And against the many  dashing about in the vain belief they are “making history”, there are thoughtful characters capable of true insight into their historical condition.


This project is supported by the Research Grants Council of the University Grants Committee of Hong Kong

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