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Lam, Po Wah. (2004). The Locust Hunter. London: Black Amber Books. 

An unusual coming-of-age novel about a Chinese boy who lives in rural Shau Tau Kok, a village in the border area between Hong Kong and the mainland.  Spanning the nineteen seventies, the novel remembers a “Hong Kong” before total urbanization. The protagonist is Sundance, an outsider to the village, and the story is about  his friendship and adventures with four other children and his dog. Sundance emerges as the main contender in an event called The Day of the Locust, a contest held once every thirty years to find the best locust hunter in Hong Kong. The contest has always been won by members of the triad society. But Sundance, supported by his friends, is determined to wrest the title away from them. A romantic subplot links Sundance with one of his friends, Amber.

The novel is mostly narrated in the first-person from Sundance’s point of view. This is interspersed with occasional third-person passages and sections. There are longer and shorter sections, and the novel does not follow conventional chapter divisions. It also shifts between different time frames and styles. In this and other ways, the novel clearly departs from the realistic style of other childhood narratives like Martin Booth’s Gweilo or Phoebe Whitworth’s View from the Peak.

The names of the children – Sundance, Big Voice, Amber Shyamalan (or Ar-wan Syamalan) – give them the character of fantasy. So too do those of their playmates and other villagers: Echo, Sundance’s dog, Lord Baltimore the turtle, neighbours ‘Mao Zedong’ and the Malaysian Black Widow, Mad Dog the village school teacher, Firecracker the old locust hunter, locustman, Bagman, the triad werewolves, Three-Eye the bird-catcher. These are inhabitants of a world seen from the child’s point of view, filtered by a childhood imagination where what is real and literal crosses frequently and seamlessly with the fantastical and supernatural. Through these crossings, the circumscribed geography of the village  evokes limitless space, and the everyday of childhood merges into the time of dreaming. Drifting off unpredictably to other styles, times and spaces, the narrative transforms the specificities of Hong Kong  names and places -  Teresa Tang, Noble Crown restaurant, Nathan Road, Hong Long St. Mongkok –into the floating signs of wonderland.

The supposed central event of the novel, the locust hunting contest, is itself displaced. His friends have all departed, and for Sundance, victory only has meaning when it is shared with others. This is a double displacement. It suggests first that the novel is not the typical children’s adventure story, or lost-and-found narrative. Second, it is consistent with the emphasis on friendship and sociality rather than on a leading protagonist. In both, The Locust Hunter  is different from Martin Booth’s Gweilo where the singular experiences of the child Booth growing up in Hong Kong dominates and focuses the narrative.

As the novel closes, Sundance finds himself writing to Amber, recounting what happened at the contest and their shared past. From this perspective, the novel reads like an extended retrospective account  where memory engages in free play with the people, places, and events of childhood. The Locust Hunter  can be interestingly compared to My City (Ngor Sing), Xi Xi’s  sinophone novel that transforms urban Hong Kong into a magic realist habitat. Both offer vivid pictures of close-knit local communities but also seek to exceed the constraints and provinciality that the ‘local’ can impose.  (EH)

 

 
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