Historical Fiction

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Lee, Ding Fai. (1980). Running Dog. Hong Kong: Heinemann Educational Books (Asia) Ltd.

Running Dog is a family saga with resonances of national allegory. It chronicles the rise of the bourgeois Chinese entrepreneur class in Hong Kong, and its search for identity within a fast-changing socio-cultural milieu. The story is built around Yau Man, an illegal immigrant from Canton, who rises to become one of Hong Kong’s leading entrepreneurs. Yau Man’s trajectory and his eventual integration into his local benefactor Chen Wan See’s family marks the main themes of social mobility and the formation of a fuzzy Hong Kong Chinese identity in the novel.

Yau Man arrives in Hong Kong in the early 1960s and seeks the help of his father’s one-time friend and business partner Chen Wan See to establish himself in the colony. Yau is depicted as an intelligent and dynamic young man disillusioned with Communist ideology; he seeks and finds  opportunity,  and exploits it in Hong Kong. He quickly develops Chen’s fledgling tailoring outfit into a major clothes manufacturing business and also begins diversifying his business interests into transport and property. Yau Man’s story is told alongside those of Chen’s children whose diverse professional and personal trajectories are representative of the possibilities and limitations attendant upon the nascent Hong Kong Chinese entrepreneurial class.

Chen Siu Fai, the second son, takes a “traditional” route and becomes Yau Man’s business partner and a filial son fulfilling his obligations to the family. Siu Ying, the elder brother, the first university graduate in the family and a man with scholarly ambitions, finds his future thwarted by his leftist sympathies which deny him a much coveted tutorship at the University of Hong Kong. He becomes a teacher but later on pursues postgraduate studies in America and decides to serve the Mainland instead of returning to Hong Kong, much to the disappointment of the father. Audrey, the youngest, is also academically accomplished and wins a scholarship to attend college in America.

Audrey’s experiences in America can be seen as an attempt to interrogate the changing nature and limits of Chinese cultural identity. She develops a relationship with an American but is hesitant to move it to a more substantial commitment as she is afraid of disappointing her parents. Equally, Charles Felton, her American lover, defers excessively to what he sees   as her oriental decorum so much so that he abandons  their  first and only attempt at sex.  Audrey also encounters characters like the Americanized John Lau who has been heavily influenced by life in America but still retain an ill-defined desire for something “Chinese”.

In chronicling the different trajectories of the Chen siblings, Running Dog seems to be attempting to document the multiplicity of “Chinese” identity in a local and globalizing  context. However, the novel’s attitude towards this issue is ambiguous, and this can be seen in  the third-person narrator’s occasional affirmation of  traditional East-West binaries. Overall, the impression is one of confusion about how and where to ground an idea of Chineseness, which is reflected in the characters as well as the novel as a whole.

Similarly the text’s position on social mobility based on a capitalist model seems ambiguous. While it appears to celebrate Yau Man’s metamorphosis from penniless illegal migrant to successful entrepreneur, the text   also raises questions about the social and cultural costs of a single-minded pursuit of financial success. However, the novel does not demonize entrepreneurship—it simultaneously upholds Yau Man as a pragmatic but humane character. The novel ends with Yau Man marrying Audrey and stepping in to save Chen and his wife from financial ruin which can be seen as a symbolic act of social integration. (HR)

 

 
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