Historical Fiction

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Lanchester, John. (2002). Fragrant Harbour. London: Faber and Faber

Fragrant Harbour is a text that attempts to articulate a cosmopolitan and inclusive Hong Kong identity through three loosely interconnected and overlapping stories. Three first-person narratives form the three sections of the novel. The first is by Dawn Stone, a journalist who starts out as a tabloid journalist in London and ends up as a powerful corporate public relations manager in the Wo business Empire. The next narrative, the longest in the book, is by Tom Stewart who begins life in a Kent pub and becomes a successful hotelier and long-standing Hong Kong resident. The last is by Stewart’s grandson, Matthew Ho, an enterprising Hong Kong businessman attempting to enter the burgeoning mainland Chinese market. The three narratives briefly merge at the end because Matthew seeks Dawn’s help  to lobby on his behalf  T.K. Wo, the Wo Empire tycoon. Matthew would like Wo  to use his influence in China to save a critical deal for Matthew’s air-conditioning services company. Wo himself is the son of a triad figure who has possibly played a role in the disappearance of Sister Maria, Matthew’s grandmother, a Chinese missionary nun with whom Stewart has an affair.

This text might be loosely called “a Hong Kong novel” because it intertwines a set of personal narratives that are in a sense allegorical and representative of the formation of modern Hong Kong. A partly documentary aspect is also evident as the text chronicles important events in Hong Kong’s history like the Japanese invasion during World War II, the riots of the 1960s, and  the formation of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). Fragrant Harbour tries to distance itself from typical anglophone depictions of Hong Kong by being critical of expatriate lifestyles in Hong Kong.    The most obvious way in which the text tries to articulate a cosmopolitan Hong Kong identity is through the unlikely union between Sister Maria and Tom Stewart. The two meet aboard a ship during Stewart’s initial journey to Hong Kong. Sister Maria, originally Zhang Sha-Mun from Fujian, boards the ship with another feisty French nun whose wager with a British businessman about the superiority of missionary education sees Maria teaching Tom Cantonese. The detailed depiction the Cantonese lessons that follow seeks to challenge the notion of Chinese being a difficult language to learn, and also portrays both Tom and Maria as exceptional individuals willing to transcend cultural and racial divisions. Despite their mutual attraction, the two never explicitly profess love for each other until Tom saves Maria during the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. The couple is separated with Tom deciding to remain in Hong Kong while Maria escapes to China. Even though they meet again in Hong Kong, Tom never learns of the child he fathers with Maria, who is given up for adoption. ,.

The ending of the novel ties up these narrative strands with the grandson Matthew Ho signifying a third generation in which British lineage melds with Chinese culture in a globalizing world to produce a Hong Kong identity that appears to straddle multiple locales and cultures. Matthew’s in-laws and family live in Sydney, his business office is in Hong Kong, his main market is China while his supplier is in the UK. Matthew seeking and receiving help from T.K. Wo also seems to signify a bridging of old rifts from his grandfather’s generation. Ultimately, though, the novel’s trajectory takes on the familiar theme of Hong Kong as a space where East and West meet but does not develop  critical focus on the issues of unequal power and cultural misapprehension that continue to characterize this confluence. (HR)

 

 
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