Historical Fiction

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Ricketts Harry. (1977). People Like UsSketches of Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Eurasia Publishing Corporation.

People Like Us consists of eight short stories and three ballads. They are all about Hong Kong scenes and subjects, and the narrators’ or protagonists’ encounters with them. The short stories show how the figure of the expatriate ingénue in Hong Kong can be deployed to become, in the words of Walter Benjamin,  a ‘secret agent - an agent of the secret discontent of his class with its own rule.’ The protagonists of the short stories are often new expatriate arrivals characterized by a childlike innocence of perspective.  Ricketts positions the ingénue as an outsider to the indigenous world on the one hand, and on the other, uses the ingénue trope to critique the dysfunctions of colonial expatriation.  

The first story, “Crazy Agnes”, is narrated in the first person by a young man who has recently arrived in his first job in Hong Kong, and who, as he admits, ‘didn’t know anything about anything.’ Besides crazy Agnes,  the ingénue appears in several stories and the ballads about the world of Chinese Hong Kong, and meets with a variety of Chinese subjects, men and women  - a rich Chinese girl, a master puppeteer, a young middle class Chinese man. These stories fashion an outsider and expatriate who is enticed by the strangeness of his location but maintains his reserve and a tactful distance so that his curiosity and situational entanglements with select Chinese subjects do not issue in any presumption of knowledge about the indigenous life-world. There is no progress from not-knowing to any claims of insider expertise; the encounters, closely described, flash up like ‘a series of snapshots pulled out of a Polaroid’, to borrow an image from the story, “Puppetman”. From one vantage, they appear inconsequential, and the internal life of its  ingénue narrator or subject unexamined. But precisely because of this, they suggest a recognition of the transience and insufficiency of an expatriate’s contact with the local, and a reticence about coming to any opinion or judgement that in turn, sustains the persona of the childlike ingénue. Through the  ingénue  as distancing technique, Ricketts’ stories are astute attempts to circumvent orientalist aversion to and desire for the alien Chinese other.

In stories about colonial expatriation, a contrary tone of knowingness is struck, and the ingénue emerges, for example, in “Mushrooms and Things” as a cultivated social pose, a feigned nonchalance about the expatriate subjects the story satirizes. In “37 is a difficult age”, the protagonist is a middle-aged expatriate woman who has lived for more than a decade in Hong Kong. As the narrator observes, ‘[l]ike many English people of her generation, she was a sentimentalist and she enjoyed her fantasy of Hong Kong as a magical paradise; but like many sentimentalists she was also a realist and she knew perfectly well that she was a member of a privileged minority in the heart of an alien community and that under the fairy lights there was poverty, squalor and corruption.’ If the positions of the ‘sentimentalist’ and ‘realist’ are what was made available to the expatriate, the ingénue is a third position developed and sustained by Ricketts. Often on the receiving end of local knowledge from earlier colonial arrivals, the ingénue listens but refrains from sentimentalism or exoticism. True to his curiosity as ingénue, realism is also a  position he refuses to be complicit in for it involves complacent acceptance of expatriate minority privilege, and its binary construction of the colonized world as an alien community presumed to be poor, squalid and corrupt. The stories about expatriation puncture the fantasies of expatriate society, and further suggest that the only ‘realist’ knowledge that it can attain, that  about itself, is precisely one it seems incapable of.

Outstanding among these stories is “All that went out with Kipling”. The occasion of the story is a dinner hosted by the doyenne of colonial society, Mrs Melinda Bradley, and the guests include the first-person narrator, other seasoned expatriates, A.M. man about town and local wit and, a newly arrived couple, Mr and Mrs Brown. As the its indicates, the story resonates of Raj society in Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills about British colonials at leisure in the Indian summer resort of Simla, and their social gatherings presided over by matriarchs who see it as their duty to maintain standards of behaviour within expatriate society and across the colonial divide, and to ensure that new arrivals, through strict observation in word and act of dinner-table etiquette, are incorporated into the prescribed ethics of sociability that this etiquette encodes. Ricketts’ mocking descriptions of colonial expatriate society also recall those of Somerset Maugham in The Painted Veil.

Mrs Brown is early identified as the ingénue in the story. She is dressed inappropriately,  and commits a number of faux-pas, much to the distaste of her hostess. But it is A.M., the man who should know better, who turns out to be the worst offender. He tells the story of a homosexual liaison between a successful expatriate man and a local boy. The affair continues beneath the expatriate’s façade of respectability until one tragic evening he puts a razor to his lover’s throat.  Dead silence greets A.M.’s as his story ends. Shocking as it already is, his story about sexual and cultural boundary-crossing has become far more transgressive in its telling for it has breached the rules of acceptable conversation at Mrs Bradley’s dinner-table, and fundamentally challenges her guardianship of expatriate sociality. Trying to recover from their confusion, the company is thrown again into disarray by Mrs Brown who, true to her ingénue personification, expresses regret and sympathy for her compatriot. In the final moment of the story, as the party breaks up and the Browns leave, Mrs Bradley assures the narrator that they will never be invited again.

Invoked as an intertext in this story, Kipling’s fiction of Raj society and Anglo-Indian subjects  resonates in Ricketts’ sketches of expatriates. It can also be seen as antitexts to the sketches where the ingénue positions himself at a distance from Chinese indigeneity. Unlike Kim, Kipling’s memorable child-figure who appears to move fluidly between east and west, Ricketts’ use of the ingénue shows how acutely conscious he is of the provocations of the colonial boundary. Writing in seventies Hong Kong, Ricketts drives a satiric wedge between colonial social privilege and its constructed knowledge of the indigenous other.  In his refusal of  the fantasy of knowing embodied in Kim, Rickett’s ingénue is also differentiated from the child Martin in Martin Booth’s memoir, Gweilo, another Kipling intertext.  (EH)

 

 
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