Historical Fiction

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Schoyer, Preston . (1959). The Typhoon’s Eye. London: Jonathan Cape.

Caroline Weitzel, a rich, newly-widowed American woman, arrives in Hong Kong from her hometown in Ohio with a philanthropic ‘mission’  to donate money to worthwhile charities. Her guide in Hong Kong is fellow American Tony Reston, an  old Asian-hand who has been in Hong Kong for twenty years and now owns a small antiques business in the central business district of Hong Kong island. From the start, Caroline is riddled with anxiety about where she is. She is fearful of Chinese crowds, and of being overwhelmed by supplicants with their demands; the fear of these ‘mobs’ forces her back into the sanctuary of her rented house on the Peak. She is also afraid of the ‘Reds’, and indeed, anti-communism is the original argument by which she persuades her friends back home to donate to the philanthropic mission. She believes ancient China to be mysterious, enigmatic, mystical, spiritual, bonded with nature, and laments its destruction by communism. Another point of view on Hong Kong is provided by Reston who maintains that  British imperialism is the best bulwark against communism, and if Americans interfere in Hong Kong’s colonial arrangement, they will make a mess of it. He chastises Caroline for  ‘the business of dangling money in front of hungry people along with the demand that they love us and hate the Reds’ which to him is ‘ultimately disastrous.’  

In Caroline the new arrival and Reston the long-term resident, Schoyer presents two American views on Hong Kong during the Asian cold war. The novel is a rare example of non-populist  fiction by an American author that is entirely set in Hong Kong. Caroline, Reston, and a cast of other expatriate and Chinese characters help bring out different facets of American thinking about Hong Kong. Reston’s assistant is Vicky Lowe, an English woman  who is a refugee from China in Hong Kong. Her husband, Paul, was a businessman in China before the communists arrived, and did not manage to get out in time. He is supposedly imprisoned in China and she is threatened by a mysterious Mr Huang who wants her to repay Paul’s  debts. She wants to go to America but her application for a visa has been turned down, and she wants to appeal to Caroline for help. At various social occasions arranged for potential recipients of her philanthropy, Caroline meets with Patrick Hamilton, another American, who disapproves of Reston, Yip, an aspiring journalist and opium addict, Peter Leung, the spokesman for a children’s centre who all seem to be as nervous as she is.   

Through these characters, Schoyer tries to bring out what he considers to be tensions in Hong Kong as they are felt by unsettled locals and anti-communist but largely well-meaning Americans. But there is little drama in their interaction. In this respect, the novel’s title is more revealing than perhaps its author intended. For some reason never made very clear, Caroline Weitzel decides to go on a launch picnic in a well-provisioned junk with the other characters. On the junk, the narrative drifts from one character grouping to another, and reports at length on the minutest action and pauses in conversation until eventually, the junk finds itself adrift in the middle of a typhoon – the literal explanation of the novel’s title. The typhoon’s eye also points more generally to Hong Kong’s precarious geopolitical location in the middle of the Asian cold war. Most suggestively, the dead calm that is the typhoon’s eye is not an  inappropriate description of the desultory narrative and the hapless characters trapped in it. (EH)

 
 
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