Hong Kong Phooey

Paul Theroux’s Kowloon Tong.

Kowloon Tong: A Novel of Hong Kong

By Paul Theroux

Houghton Mifflin Co.; 243 pages; $23

The Union Jack came down. The band played “God Save the Queen” one last time–although, given the occasion, the American lyrics (“My Country ‘Tis of Thee”) seemed more appropriate. Prince Charles looked suitably dour, boarded Britannia, and departed Hong Kong. He shall not return.

No one throws a ceremony like the British, but did the coverage of the July 1 “handover” have to be so breathless? Will the return of Hong Kong to China really be remembered as one of the great events of the 20th century? A month later, the event already seems forgotten. The death of colonialism should be ranked among humanity’s greatest accomplishments of the waning century, but the hard work was done at the end of World War II–an event that seems secure in its place in the history books even though Peter Jennings wasn’t there to report it.

In this atmosphere of hyperbole, Paul Theroux’s Kowloon Tong: A Novel of Hong Kong takes a refreshingly small-scale approach. The novel is an unabashed attempt to capitalize on the hype surrounding the handover, but it succeeds by steadfastly refusing to indulge in majesty. Instead of princes and beefeaters, Theroux gives us a circumscribed tale about the fleecing of a dysfunctional British family by an unscrupulous businessman from mainland China. It is a tonic for the cloying coverage of the event itself.

I admit to having been suspicious of Kowloon Tong, a novel prepared for an event rather than responding to it. The publishing world is fond of anniversaries, but the notion of creating a novel to commemorate an event before it happens seems especially fishy. Great novels are topical only in a subtler and grander sense. Imagine if Herman Melville’s seafaring adventure of 1851 had focused on the first America’s Cup race that year, or if F. Scott Fitzgerald had implicated Gatsby in the Teapot Dome scandal.

To my surprise, however, Kowloon Tong works because the match of author and subject is so good. Though born in America, Theroux is a passionate dissector of the British character, having spent 20 years living in London. Theroux finds the British most hilarious when indulging in the rituals of empire (“dark comedy and absurdity,” he calls it). He also delights in exploring the limits of the British stiff upper lip, relishing opportunities to see what indignities a subject of the queen can suffer and still say “mustn’t grumble.” And while Theroux has never been noted for his celebration of the milk of human kindness–at his worst, he is so unrelentingly peeved with others that one wonders why he bothered to write about them–he does have an eye for the differences among people and among peoples, and a shrewd understanding of the irrational annoyance those differences provoke.

The Hong Kong handover creates the ideal subject for Theroux. Clashes of race and politics are exacerbated by the emotional intensity of a deadline that everyone thinks historical, though for different reasons. Theroux’s own sympathy lies with those who fled Communist China but are being denied a chance to rule themselves in Hong Kong. (In case his fiction leaves any ambiguity, Theroux spelled out his support for the Hong Kong democrats in a recent New Yorker article.)

It is impossible not to see Kowloon Tong as an allegory. The book focuses on Neville “Bunt” Mullard and his mother, Betty, the owners of a stitching plant, on the eve of the handover. Bunt’s brand of capitalism is played by the outdated rules of imperialism. He spends his days in Hong Kong’s “blue” hotels, making daily, deliberately mysterious appearances on the factory floor in order to encourage productivity. Bunt is unprepared for the ruthless capitalism of Mr. Hung, a People’s Liberation Army officer who appears in Bunt’s club to make him an offer for the factory he simply cannot refuse. Bunt, struck by a belated attachment to his native Hong Kong, falls in love with an employee named Mei-ping. When Bunt and Mei-ping begin to raise uncomfortable questions about Hung’s connection to a murder, Hung decides he must drive Bunt from the colony altogether.

As Theroux describes Bunt’s speculations about Hung’s guilt, he succumbs to the urge to preach: “The evidence was not in the room, the evidence was missing–that stark neatness was the proof that a bloody crime had been committed. The same was true of China. The look of the apartment was the spare look of China, a place that had been scoured and simplified by chaos–upheaval, terror, mass murder, war. Hong Kong had a peaceable clutter, just an accumulation of worn or out-of-date things, like a massive attic.” Happily, however, labored metaphors like this are few, and the politics serve more as a backdrop than as a message.

In fact, Theroux’s sympathy for the Hong Kong Chinese is what gives Kowloon Tong a moral center often absent from his work. Mei-ping, Bunt’s employee and lover, suffers at the hands of both the outgoing British masters and incoming Chinese; without her, Hung’s takeover of Imperial Stitching might have seemed a victimless crime. The otherwise repellent Bunt is redeemed by his somewhat ridiculous infatuation with Mei-ping, and the at times heavy-handed tale of the factory sale gives way to a more interesting story, a love triangle of sorts among Bunt, Mei-ping, and Bunt’s mother, Betty.

Bunt and Betty are a memorable pair. Bunt is named for an elder brother who died in infancy, and both Betty and Bunt seem to feel that he is only a stand-in for his predecessor. At 43, Bunt remains a toddler in his mother’s eyes, and he too is disturbingly comfortable in the relationship. Each evening, Betty waits up for her son, aware of his vain attempts to create a secret life for himself with Hong Kong’s prostitutes. “When he was late and his mother stood waiting in the doorway, she always seemed to swell, filling the doorframe, to obstruct and delay him, so that she could bulk against his approaching face and scold him. … She had the pathetic aggression of a wife or mother–to Bunt there was no difference.”

It soon becomes clear that it is not Hung’s connivance that’s driving Bunt out of the factory and into exile, but Betty’s will. She hears the sum offered for the factory and refuses to allow Bunt’s concern about the future of the business or his burgeoning romance with Mei-ping to stand in the way of her plan to return to England and live in comfortable solitude with him. This chilling story of a mother’s crushing love for a son will haunt me long after I’ve forgotten the details of the handover ceremony.