Historical Fiction

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Wong, David T.K. (2003). The Evergreen Tea House: A Hong Kong Novel. Salisbury: Muse.

Novel set in both Hong Kong and mainland China (occasionally in London, Bangkok, Korea, Taipei, Saigon and New York). Predominantly about the life of Chu Wing-seng from childhood to adulthood and eventually his murder. Chu Wing-seng is the son of an extremely successful businessman who started out in smuggling and insider dealing during and just after the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in World War Two. The story opens in 1952: Wing-seng is a young boy and wants to be a successful businessman like his father. But his father (who collects antiquities and values traditional Chinese culture as represented by  the Evergreen Tea House) excludes him from any conversation about business, and his mother is devoutly Buddhist, which sickens Wing-seng. Wing-seng goes away to the U.S. (changing his name to Xavier) and meets an American Chinese girl, Lucille, whom he brings back to Hong Kong as his wife when he inherits his father’s business.

He continues with his father’s success, and meets his father’s old business associates who would gather at the Evergreen Tea House. But he is completely incapable of affection towards his family. He discovers that his mother was a call girl, and that the chain of events which followed on  from her marriage to his father caused death and dissolution to his father’s family. This is why she is devoutly Buddhist – to compensate for her sense of guilt. Xavier is ashamed and angered by this revelation. Meanwhile Lucille is having an affair with a lovable, rough-around-the-edges, British journalist who is not afraid to give the colonial government a bad press.

When Xavier was  young, his father had once taken him to Taipei on a business trip. While his father was in meetings, Xavier was shown round by Fei-Fei, the ‘niece’ of one of his business associates. He fell quickly in love with her and she with him but since she was in fact a call girl, she made a show of dumping him so that he would not try to pursue her. Much later in life, his mother reveals she has been making payments to the business associate who introduced Xavier to Fei-Fei, to pay for a child he claims Xavier had with her. Xavier is determined to find them since she is the only girl he ever really loved, and he is thoroughly dismissive of his ‘sickly’ son with Lucille. His mother dies of a heart-attack from shock.

At the time (1985) of crucial international negotiations in Peking between China and the British, at which Xavier is supposed to be present, he disappears to find Fei-Fei. He tracks down her brothers who take him up a perilous path where he is shown her grave on a mountainside. Xavier thinks they are angry with him and want his money but when he offers it to them they are insulted and kill him.

Hong Kong itself as a geographical location and an idea (cultural, political, economic) is a silent character within the novel. It is not given a role and yet as backdrop is suggestive, without the novel being really aware of it. There is something about its ability to accommodate the multiple worlds of the various characters, at once invisible to each other, which the narrative alludes to but does not really exploit.    (KB)

 

 
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