Historical Fiction

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Shih Shu-Ching. (2005). City of the Queen. A Novel of Colonial Hong Kong. trans. Sylvia Li-chun Lin and Howard Goldblatt. New York: Columbia University Press.

This is the English translation of the one-volume abridged version of Shih Shu-Ching’s trilogy, Xianggang sanbuqu. The trilogy narrates the fortunes of four generations in a family whose matriarch is called Huang Deyun. It posits familial development as allegorical of the history of colonial Hong Kong from the second half of the nineteenth century to 1997, while displaying many of the qualities of the genre of colonial romance. As in other cases, what distinguishes this novel from the run-of-the-mill story about “Oriental” HK is the writing, or the writing as it is rendered by Lin and Goldblatt.

The novel is divided into three parts. In Part One, a young woman, Huang Deyun, is  abducted from Dongguan and sold into prostitution in Hong Kong where she encounters a colonial civil servant, Adam Smith. The affair between the two produces an illegitimate offspring, Richard Huang, and sets up the network of relations that unfolds over the twentieth century.  To the outside world, Huang Deyun’s “husband” is Qu Yabing, Smith’s interpretor who is also a police informer. Part Two narrates her abandonment by Qu, and Huang is tempted to return to prostitution but instead finds work as companion to Lady Eleven, the owner of a pawnshop. Intensely autodidactic, she learns English by reading the newspaper,  the North China Herald, and also the pawnbroking business by watching Lady Eleven. The latter eventually becomes a kind of mentor, and Huang prospers. The colonial romance of Part One gives way to the romance of individual triumph over social adversity in Part Two.

Emerging into Part Three, Huang, by now the owner of a number of pawnshops, has a new paramour and business partner, Sean Shelley, loan manager of Wayfoong Bank. The affair, kept hidden from colonial eyes,  is privately and financially beneficial to both parties. Socially looked up to as a successful financier, Huang also thinks she has found love at last.  Richard Huang marries Li Meixiu, a devout Catholic, and they have a son, William. Richard is serially adulterous  with non-Chinese women; his favourite is Ingrid Baker, a kind of new woman not afraid of being “on top” of her male partner. By this time, Hong Kong has come under Japanese occupation, and Sean Shelley, as governor of Wayfoong Bank, is interned in a Japanese camp. Huang Deyun dies without seeing Shelley again. There follows a gap between the end of the war and late 1970s. William Huang has grown up and taken over the family finance and banking business. Continuing in the family tradition, he marries an aristocratic English woman, appropriately named Elizabeth Noble, but also takes a mainland Chinese mistress,  Zhu Rongrong. His daughter, Huang Dieniang is the illegimate offspring of Richard and Zhu, and she also has a boyfriend from the Wayfoong Bank, Ned Atkins. The novel ends with Hong Kong before 1997 and a question mark over whether Dieniang can repeat the success story her greatgrandmother represents.

What makes the novel – or its translation – unusual is the way it draws recurrent attention to its own typicality. In this self-consciousness, it is a kind of “writing back” to the colonial adventures of James Clavell.  Near the end of the novel, when we’ve arrived at the fourth generation of inter-racial romance, the narrative observes:  ‘Ned Atkins was from an aristocratic family. He had come to the Far East for its traditional charm and fantasy…. Listening to Ned, Huang Dieniang had the eerie feeling that history was repeating itself.’  A century might have gone by, but the ways in which the characters on either side of the colonial, racial and cultural divide interact have barely changed. Sometimes, as in the case of Huang Dieniang here, this deadening repetitiveness may penetrate the characters’ consciousness and make them wonder what they’re doing, but these intermittent occasions are rare. The notion that it is repetition which makes the colonial history of Hong Kong colonial is very much the burden of the novel.

What of progress, then, which is supposed to define Hong Kong’s history from a barren rock to what it is now? The novel shows that there is progress because the characters are driven by desire for a better self and a better life. But their struggle to rise in the world is carried out without any real understanding of their condition of subjection. These are men and women of very average intelligence; the novel is not a novel of ideas. By rendering them as types, the novel dramatizes an historical contradiction: the characters fail to achieve individuality precisely because they lack awareness of themselves as products of historical forces: colonialism, orientalism (including self-orientalism), evangelism, modernization. The colonial history of Hong Kong is thus one of material progress while all other aspects of human and social improvement are put on hold.  (EH)

 

 
 
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