Heidy Lo reviews Marshall Moore’s new tale of a Hong Kong haunted by history that is also a deftly told allegory for today.
Marshall Moore, Inhospitable, (Camphor Press, May 2018), 302 pp.
In Inhospitable, Marshall Moore successfully blends traditional Chinese ghost mythology with war history to create what is nevertheless a modern tale of Hong Kong. Moore brilliantly walks the line between setting the story in the millennial age and deploying traditional elements. Yet this is also a story of blurred moral boundaries, and by establishing the ethical struggle within the characters, Moore explores the grey area between right and wrong.
Lena is a protagonist with two natures: a hotel owner and someone who has been in the hospitality business for a long time, and a medium connected to the distinctly inhospitable world of ghosts. After moving to Hong Kong with her husband, Marcus, and witnessing the apparent suicide of two teenagers, Lena’s life gets sucked into a whirlpool of untold family history and revenge. Her connection with ghosts allows her to slowly uncover a plot against her own family leaving it is up to her to save her own life and the life of her loved ones.
Yet not all ghosts are harmful. In many cultures, especially Chinese, ghosts are widely feared, unwelcome and hated, people believe that they are always back to seek vengeance or just aim to harm humans. And if Moore’s ghosts are signs of historical trauma, specifically the trauma of Hong Kong’s colonial past and more particularly, the Japanese Occupation, Moore also challenges both tradition and literary convention with friendly ghosts to assist Lena on her quest to protect her family. Although the main antagonist is a vengeful spirit, there are also ghosts on Lena’s side. Loki, the ghost that comes to warn Lena of her dangerous situation, is the perfect example to challenge Hong Kong beliefs that all ghosts are evil.
However, Moore’s challenge to traditional Chinese views of ghosts is itself haunted by the spectre of a cultural imperialism that on the whole Moore is trying to exorcise. It is worth noting that Loki may not even be a Chinese ghost. For starters, he is the only ghost with an European name and as I have mentioned, Chinese ghosts are usually harmful like the main antagonist, Wing. Loki’s good nature provides a huge contrast to traditional Chinese ghosts and one cannot help but wonder if Moore does this to rehabilitate traditional Chinese ghosts or simply because he has unconsciously projected an image of ghosts from Western popular culture onto an oriental frame. Caspar the Friendly Ghost meets Fu Manchu.
If Inhospitable risks a stumble in its presentation of Chinese culture, the same cannot be said of its representation of an essential Hong Kong paradox: change is the only constant, but you have to know your place. In Moore’s Hong Kong, no one exists forever but there is a purpose for everyone. His Hong Kong is a modernised global city filled to the brim with tourists, suggesting that we are all merely passing by this world. Ghost or humans, Moore shows us no one can exist permanently, and this place is not our final destination. At times, Moore’s characters know their place a little too well, their thematic purpose a little too apparent, and the machine behind the novel’s smooth exterior starts to show. Each one serves a unique purpose in helping Lena, even the ones who seem irrelevant at first, making it clear that everyone is exactly where they should be and putting in effort to bring the plot to a fitting resolution. Yet Hong Kong is a busy capitalist city and everyone serves a direct purpose in this society. The same can be said for the characters in the story. As someone born and raised in Hong Kong, I felt a peculiar empathy towards Moore’s characters. As sad as it may seem, being just a part in a well-oiled, harmonious society is what we have been taught our whole lives.
Although Moore does an excellent job in reflecting Hong Kong’s dynamic, contradictory life, the ghost of colonialism haunts Moore’s representation of Hong Kong’s spaces and places. When Lena, accompanied by her local friend, Isaac, visits Sham Shui Po, there is a sense that it is not as good a community because it is not as international as other regions in Hong Kong. Through their short conversation, even Isaac’s tone suggests that everything is cheaper because it is not somewhere Western expats usually visit. Older regions in Hong Kong, like Sham Shui Po, have a long and colourful history and are full of unique traditions, and it is a shame that Moore did not engage these more fully. Instead, Moore chooses this place for Lena to feel harmed and violated making me wonder if Lena would feel the same if the same incident happens in Central. It is possible that Moore is trying to convey how alienated a foreigner feels in such local environment, but at times he risks reproducing unequal binaries that valorise globalised progress at the expense of local history.
Moore pulls it back through his relentless focus on struggle and conflict within and between values. Morality struggle is also a huge part of this story. His characters are complex and dramatize the a range of different moral standards. Inhospitable ultimately succeeds because it takes seriously Hong Kong’s own divided and conflicted culture, and struggles with the question, who bears responsibility for conflict now that is rooted in the legacies of the past? There is an ongoing debate about blame and recrimination throughout the story, but Moore rejects the didactic approach and is at pains to stage a dialogue between perspectives. By incorporating this concept into the story, Moore lightly touch on the grey area that exists between right and wrong, responsibility and solutions. As an allegory for today’s debates and conflicts, it treads carefully on a path between worlds in a local and global context increasingly characterised by polarisation.
Heidy Lo is a writer, literature enthusiast and movie fanatic. Currently a university student in Hong Kong, she has also written for Hong Kong Free Press. She is working on her first book.