Historical Fiction




New, Christopher. (2001)[1975]. The Chinese Box. Hong Kong: Asia 2000.

The Chinese Box is the middle novel in Christopher New’s China Coast Trilogy which includes a prequel Shanghai  (1985) and a sequel Change of Flag (2000). Set amidst the riots of 1967, the text interweaves a personal narrative with larger socio-political forces shaping Hong Kong society at the time. The novel constantly shifts between the personal and the public by interspersing clips of fictionalised newspaper reportage with the story of the half-Russian, half-British Hong Kong academic Dimitri Johnston. Similar to many pre-1997 anglophone texts, The Chinese Box looks apocalyptically at the prospect of a Mainland takeover. It also attempts to critique colonial governance and the social disparities of Hong Kong’s capitalist society.

Johnston faces a mid-life crisis as his family life with British wife Helen disintegrates and his professional life as an academic becomes increasingly staid. Helen, a one time would-be concert pianist carries with her a heavy sense of failure and is unable to adjust to life in Hong Kong, becoming withdrawn and depressed. Dimitri, born in Hong Kong and fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin, finds it easier to relate to Hong Kong society, though he is wary of the company of his fellow expatriates and their attitudes towards Hong Kong society.

Dimitri frequents a brothel and develops a relationship with a prostitute, a Hong Kong fisherman’s daughter called Julie, which he imagines to be more than a mere business arrangement. However, Julie is soon replaced by a more substantial relationship with a Chinese woman, Mila, who is more Dimitri’s intellectual and social equal. Mila is Dimitri’s daughter, Elena’s, ballet teacher. She is a Shanghai-born woman who has escaped the Cultural Revolution and is in limbo as she waits for a visa to enter the UK to continue her dancing.

The Dimitri-Mila relationship however does not follow the usual model of a white male in a paternal relationship with a Chinese woman. Mila maintains a level of independence which is affirmed at the end of the novel when she decides to return to China even though Dimitri is free to marry her because Helen commits suicide. Dimitri is thus left to face an uncertain future with his two children.

Through Helen and a few other minor characters the novel provides a critique of typical expatriate attitudes towards local Hong Kong society. The novel also critiques both colonial government and wealthy local Chinese attitudes towards social disparities in Hong Kong—especially unbridled capitalist ideology and what is seen as its neo-Confucian rationalisation. It also takes up the issue of justice in a colonial setting through a trial against police brutality in which Mila and Dimitri are witnesses. Milla’s initial refusal to testify aligns with the text’s depiction of a supposedly apathetic attitude towards injustice and authoritarianism among the Hong Kong Chinese but her later decision to testify problematises this depiction. However, it is re-instated because we discover that Mila might have testified due to pressure from Shanghai authorities who want to embarrass the British colonial government. Similarly the text appears to suggest that justice is unequal in a colonial society because the convicted police officers are later cleared during an appeal process. This incident implies criticism of Hong Kong’s “rule of law” discourse.   (HR) 

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