1997 Narratives

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New, Christopher. (2000). A Change of Flag. Hong Kong: Asia 2000 Limited.

This is another novel  set in the days before the 1997 handover. . The uncertainties and tensions that preceded this event are apparent throughout the text but are distinctly muted when compared to a novel like Paul Theroux’s Kowloon Tong (1997). This could be partly due to the historical hindsight available to New since  A Change of Flag was published after 1997 when  the f  PRC intervention in Hong Kong anticipated by Theroux, among others,  did not materialise.

The story centres on the lives of the extended Denton family which had its beginnings in colonial Shanghai. Michael Denton, whose English father was married to a Shanghainese woman, is now a wealthy retired businessman in Hong Kong. He and his Chinese wife Grace live with their mentally handicapped son Paul and daughter San-San in a villa on the Peak. The story begins with the arrival of Rachel, an American niece of Michael’s, to begin postgraduate studies at the University of Hong Kong. Rachel’s arrival coincides with an appeal from Lily, Michael’s disillusioned pro-Communist sister in Shanghai, to help her escape the Mainland.

The novel is not structured along a single dramatic or thematic concern. It presents several intertwined stories which build up a kind of mosaic of Hong Kong life which extends from the privileged lives of the Dentons to  those  of illegal immigrants and triad members at the bottom of the social scale. Michael’s attempt to rescue Lily introduces Yin Hong, a former servant of the Dentons and an ageing triad member, to the narrative. Yin Hong uses his triad connections to smuggle Lily into Hong Kong by “snakeboat” but at the same time Ah Keung, Hong’s partner, blackmails Lily’s son Patrick Denton. Patrick is Rachel’s thesis supervisor and is a gay man unable to  acknowledge publicly his homosexuality  because of  Hong Kong’s arcane sodomy laws and homophobic society. It is Michael who finances both Lily’s escape and ultimately Patrick’s blackmail payoff money. The way in which the triad members exploit Michael acts as a commentary on the shadowy and pervasive influence of triads in Hong Kong.

There are also several sequences in the novel where Lily reflects on how a lifetime of commitment to the PRC is betrayed by the Chinese Communist party. She, along with several other characters in the novel, recounts the horror of labour camps, the hysteria of the cultural revolution and overall repression in China. Similarly, Rachel observes the extreme disparities of Hong Kong life, divided between the luxurious lifestyles of those living on the Peak and tenement dwellers. Michael explains to Rachel that Hong Kong is a better alternative because it allows social mobility and a  chance for  a better life than  China.

The novel ends with Lily successfully escaping the PRC and settling in Taiwan where she begins writing a book on her disillusioning experiences in China entitled “The Fourth World”. During Lily’s escape, Ah Keung kills Yin Hong as retribution for the latter selling Patrick’s blackmail payoff details to a rival gang which disrupts the deal. Patrick’s homosexuality is exposed because the payoff fails and he commits suicide. Michael’s role in Lily’s escape is discovered by the Hong Kong Police, and he is arrested for aiding illegal immigration. Rachel, though devastated by Patrick’s suicide which she witnesses, plans to complete her thesis with Dimitri Johnston, a friend of the Denton family and her co-supervisor.   (HR)

 

 
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