Historical Fiction




Mo, Timothy. (1978). The Monkey King. London: Andre Deutsch, rpt. Paddleless Press 2000.

A comic-satiric novel, set in 1950s-1960s Hong Kong, The Monkey King is  Timothy Mo’s first work. The protagonist, Wallace Nolasco, is born in Macau of Portuguese-Chinese descent (Macanese), and marries Poon Mei Ling, daughter of a Cantonese businessman in Hong Kong. The narrative follows Wallace’s adventures in the Poon family, especially his relationship with the patriarch, Mr Poon. Each views the other with suspicion, and Wallace takes on the role of the legendary Monkey from the Chinese prose classic, Journey to the West, who rebels against celestial authority. In the Chinese classic, the agile Monkey is also a trickster but he is eventually tamed. Idle and roguish, Wallace’s pranks against Mr Poon are tolerated as the patriarch maneovres his son-in-law into his familial and business schemes. When one of Mr Poon’s shady business deals comes too close to home, Wallace, unknowing to himself, is made to take the blame, and is sent, together with Mei Ling, away from the city to a village in the rural New Territories. Away from Mr Poon’s constant surveillance, Wallace begins to emerge as a man in his own right. He shows entrepreneurial initiative and flair in attracting tourists to the village, and settles a long-term feud with a neighbouring village by displacing the energies of the village youths onto a friendly game of soccer. The novel ends with Wallace’s return to the Poon household, and his gradual assumption of authority until he becomes Mr Poon’s successor. From a racial and social marginal as Eurasian son-in-law, the simian Wallace achieves gravitas and authority as Chinese patriarch.

 The Monkey King represents and narrates Chinese culture as it is mediated by the family. The Poon family is Cantonese, in Hong Kong, and it is this specific version or variety of the Chinese, and a specific time-frame – the nineteen fifties to seventies – that Mo fictionalizes. Much of the third-person narrative is focalized through Wallace; for a long time in the novel, he is the observer of the Poon family culture. Wallace is, however, not Cantonese but from a community which, despite having lived very close to the Cantonese for generations, remains discrete and wary. In this respect, the novel emphasizes how Cantonese family culture appears to someone who is outside, marginalized, and alienated. But the story of his familial and social progress also shows the incorporative power of the family in its assimilation of ex-centric forces for its own renewal and regeneration..

 The Poon family members are rarely expressive in direct speech and reveal little interiority; if we know them, it is through Wallace or the narrator’s descriptions and comment. This is also where satire comes in. All the characters, including Wallace, are subjected to the satiric processes of hyperbole and reduction. As the agent of satire, Wallace is witty, critical, and sarcastic about the Poon family. Just as the third person narrator invites us to laugh at him, he invites the reader to laugh at the other characters’ absurdities and ridicule the family’s illiberal and at times aberrant treatment of himself and each other.  Mo’s satiric thrusts are complemented by his  strengths in setting a scene and dramatizing details of appearance and action. The Monkey King continues to be one of the best-written and most successfully comical anglophone novels set in Hong Kong in the last century.  (EH)

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