Jason Chu reviews John Saeki’s new detective novel which restores the South China tiger to its rightful place in the wilds of Hong Kong.
John Saeki,The Tiger Hunters of Tai O, (Hong Kong: Blacksmith Books, 2017), 302pp.
John Saeki’s novel The Tiger Hunters of Tai O brings to the fore the history of the only remaining fishing village in Hong Kong. Filled with much local sensibilities, this riveting crime fiction draws timely attention to the traditional culture the inhabitants of Tai O have been preserving – something that anyone who cares about the city should be reminded.
The book follows Simon Lee, a Eurasian police inspector in Tai O Police Station, as he tries to find out the real culprit behind the mysterious murder of a man. A responsible officer, Lee swears not to let the case close without doing justice to the dead man, despite orders from high-rank police officials in Central (HK) to do so. Guided by his “professional curiosity,” the banished policeman gradually gets caught up in an intricate interplay of post-war politics: between the Communists, Nationalists, American, the British colonial government, and local Triads.
Setting the novel in the 1950s, a time in which Hong Kong (and the rest of the world) was recovering from World War II, Saeki has clearly done extensive research on the livelihood of the colonized people, especially those in Tai O. The historical passages at the beginning of the first two chapters offer an intensive course for readers who are not familiar with the legacy of this fishing village, which, at the same time, invites readers to engage the story taking place in this mysterious island:
“And for those who had even heard of Tai O and its sea-gypsies, the stilt-village at the end of Lantau Island was way beyond the pale, a dark and chaotic portal to ancient and alien lifeforms.” (13)
The portrayal of Hong Kong in the novel is not confined to Tai O, however. In other parts, we come across familiar names such as the Wing On department store and dai pai dong, many of which still exist in present day Hong Kong. But perhaps, what does not exist today – the South China tigers – are by degrees more fascinating. As a major plot device, the myth of the tiger encourages us to imagine the fear that one must have felt living alongside such majesterial beasts of the forest.
The author brilliantly pieces together these rich historical materials to give each character a legend of their own. Saeki pays as much attention to side characters as he does to his main protagonist, Simon Lee. Looking into different characters provides readers with not only the many aspects of the story, but also the different facets of everyday life in Hong Kong in the 1950s. For example, Madam Li, the former Communist member who fled to the colony as a refugee, helps to link the local history to political turmoil during China’s long twentieth century. Another character worth mentioning is Simon’s partner Jagan Singh, whose Indian heritage leads to him suffering serious episodes of racism. Nonetheless, the huge variety of characters on display and the drama between them reflect just how much diversity this geographically small city has to offer.
Despite the novel’s historical background, Saeki reminds us in an interview that readers should be careful not to approach the book purely as a historical novel because, after all, it is a product of his imagination. The history on display, then, only acts as the backdrop to the action. Indeed, if we only pay attention to the context of the story, we would risk overlooking the power of the literary work itself. In this case, Saeki’s writing wonderfully captures the essence of being human:
“Humans are adaptable. Opportunists for sure, but our hands, teeth and brains give us many options for choosing our place in the ecosystem. For us, all sorts of survival strategies are on offer. We can be the biggest predators on the planet, but we can also be the most cooperative species on Earth. We can live like parasitic ichneumon wasps if we want, but we can also choose other ways. We do have a choice.” (194)
The third-person narration gives us access to the inner world of the characters struggling to choose between good and evil; readers can easily identify with them one way or another. Hence, this is a story about humanity as much it is about the city itself.
Each chapter is named using a title of a popular song, putting yet another layer of cultural specificity to the grander story. The “score” of the novel, if I am able to put it this way, is carefully chosen to heighten the already intense emotional landscape. Particularly iconic is the last song we hear, “In Other Words” (aka “Fly Me To The Moon” by Frank Sinatra”), which perfectly matches with the romantic scene where Simon and his girlfriend Maria finally reunite.
The Eurasian writer (Saeki is Japanese-European) has made good use of his own background to develop Simon’s character; the real-life experiences of living a bi-racial life – the feeling of not being fully enveloped by either of one’s ethnicities – have translated into the protagonist’s struggles in the novel. There are glimpses of Simon reacting to being called “mongrel” in the first few chapters, which affectively reveal the clashes happening inside of him; nonetheless, the novel would’ve been even more captivating than it already is, if there had been some more description of this aspect for readers to ponder.
That said, for those who are seeking a fresh perspective to understand Hong Kong in the colonial era, The Tiger Hunters of Tai O is a rare and valuable account of this history (a history that is perhaps destined, with Tai O village itself, to be buried under the relentless drive of development that characterizes Hong Kong). Through this work, Saeki demonstrates with passion how writers can take advantage of the potentiality of a city in order to create a literary work that adds new voices to a landscape. It is this which The Tiger Hunters of Tai O does this for Hong Kong.
Jason Chu recently completed his B.A. in Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong and is now pursuing a Postgraduate Diploma in Education at CUHK. He is interested in the representations of love, friendship, and loneliness in literature and films. His dream is to own an insurmountable amount of books with which to surround himself.