1997 Narratives

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Theroux, P. (1997). Kowloon Tong. New York: Houghton and Mifflin.  

Kowloon Tong is a novel which sees Hong Kong’s handover to the PRC in apocalyptic terms.  The text is sharply critical of British xenophobia and anglocentricism but at the same time seems unable to offer a positive portrayal of Chineseness. A quasi-allegorical Chinese official named Hung personifies the ruthlessness, violence and corruption of the Mainland bureaucracy. For a novel set entirely in Hong Kong there is also a curious absence of any Hong Kong Chinese characters.

Neville (“Bunt”) Mullard, a middle-aged Hong Kong-born British expatriate, and his overbearing mother, Betty, lead insular and almost incestuous lives in their cottage (symbolically named Albion) on the Peak, surrounded by decaying icons of Britishness like their aging Rover car, Bush TV and English-made radio. Betty  hates all things Chinese, and insists on using derogatory labels like “Chinky Chonks”. The Bunts know hardly any Cantonese and have never ventured beyond Hong Kong into mainland China. 

They choose to ignore the implications of the handover until it forces its way into their lives in the form of Hung, a ruthless and almost surreal Mainland official cum businessman, who forces Bunt into selling the stitching factory (predictably named Imperial Stitching) he   inherited from his dead father and his father’s Chinese partner.  Betty is keen to accept the deal and is excited at the prospect of the large amount of money she will get; she  looks forward to leaving the colony and returning to the UK. It is also a form of symbolic revenge for Betty because she knows of her husband’s affairs with Chinese women in the factory — selling the factory becomes a twisted form of punishing the workforce.

Bunt, on the other hand, is doggedly determined to hold on to the factory and a monotonous but routine and predictable lifestyle which includes afternoon sex in Kowloon strip clubs and an affair with Mei-ping, a Chinese illegal immigrant working at the factory. However, Hung becomes an intrusive and bullying presence that Bunt cannot ignore. The sinister Hung knows intimate details about Bunt’s life, his affairs, his father’s affairs and even Bunt’s bank balance, and uses this knowledge to manipulate Bunt into selling the factory. A condition of the sale is that the Mullards leave Hong Kong for good.  There is suspicion that Hung, who has intruded into Bunt’s life to the extent that he can even influence Bunt’s family, friends and acquaintances, might have murdered Ah Fu, Mei-ping’s flat-mate and friend. Mei-ping wants Bunt to intervene on her behalf and question Hung. Bunt makes a half-hearted attempt but backs off when Hung threatens to call off the factory deal. Bunt then becomes concerned for Mei-ping’s safety and attempts to take her to England with him. His  protective paternalism towards Mei-ping is the closest he comes to experiencing love in the novel. It is also the closest he comes to rebelling against his  mother’s suffocating influence. But the deal is suddenly advanced, possibly with the connivance of Betty, and Mei-ping disappears. Bunt is forced to abandon his search for Mei-ping and the novel ends with a sequence that shows the factory being demolished. In his attempt to save Mei-ping, the denouement appears to suggest that Bunt, though an ineffectual and emasculated remnant of colonial masculinity, still has some humanity that Hung, his Chinese nemesis, lacks. This could be read as a re-working of the “white man’s burden” narrative because Mei-ping’s only hope of escaping the repressive forces of her own society, however ineffectual and unattractive, is Bunt.   (HR)

 

 
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