Liz Wan reviews a recent addition to an award-winning noir series: an anthology of fourteen deliciously dark tales from Hong Kong.
Jason Y. Ng and Susan Blumberg-Kason, Hong Kong Noir (Akashic Books, 2018), 236 pp.
Hong Kong Noir is not for the faint-hearted. As the editors, Jason Y. Ng and Susan Blumberg-Kason, remark in the introduction, the fact that this collection comprises of fourteen – one of the most inauspicious and “forbidding” (11) numbers in Hong Kong – dark tales of the dazzling city already knells an ominous toll. Taking readers for a dive into the sinister pasts of a different location with each story, like the tentacles of an octopus, the anthology touches upon not only crime, revenge, and punishment, but also various reflections on identity, diaspora, politics, (interracial) conflicts and relationships, and beyond. The result is a compelling polyphonic mix of narratives which, like seaweed, at times interweaves to form a larger entity, yet also drifts apart, denying definitions, defying teleology, and resisting interpretations.
The collection is divided into four parts, and the stories are thoughtfully arranged to form a cyclical sequence. “Part I: Hungry Ghosts & Troubled Spirits” introduces the spiritual world that is rooted in Hong Kong with ascending hair-raising levels. The origins and identification processes of ghosts, the nature of being a floating spirit, and so on are covered in the four tales of murder, madness, “accidents,” and asking for adventure (then being cautioned…). “Part II: Obedience and Respect” seems to stress traditional Chinese values; but instead, there are domestic abuse, betrayal, and (brutal) rebellion in the three stories. The next three, in “Part III: Family Matters,” keep up the sense of drama and ambiguous loyalty, while adding in some occasional steaminess and cat-and-mouse chases.
If the first three parts may be generalised as experiences in which the reader looks outward from the narrators’ perspectives, “Part IV: Death and Thereafter” may contrarily be described as pushing readers “outside” and making them look in. There are more metanarratives in this part, and the four tales self-reflexively lead readers to question almost everything: verity, reality, consciousness, humanity… The last story, Ysabelle Cheung’s “Big Hotel,” in particular mirrors partly how one may feel about coincidences, superstitions, and even life and narratives. From asking, “Was it a dream or a premonition?” (227), to plunging into a quest for “truth” by “scanning earlier pages for clues” (229) in the book, readers may grow increasingly sceptical of chronicles and even language but find it impossible to escape from either. They may then concur with the existential proposition of the tale, that “nothing seems real” (233), and “come to terms with the monotony of life, the monotony of death” (230). Yet it is precisely the realm of ghosts that may transcend these (physical) limitations and make people wish for more – more dimensions of life, life after death, more stories.
The sense of disorientation triggered in the last part may result in the need for more “solid” footing, and hence the revisiting of earlier tales. If one rereads the first story, Jason Y. Ng’s “Ghost of Yulan Past,” upon finishing the book, they would most likely see the reference to several places – “Tsat Tsz Mui Road in North Point, Bela Vista Villa in Cheung Chau…” (21) – in a new light. As an editor of this anthology, Ng would know what he was doing all along when he inserted this. He is not the only one creating connections within the collection, however.
The book is distinguished for its polyphonic and intertextual features, which involve diversified voices yet overall reverberating harmony. Linguistically, there are both local and “native” kinds of English: transliterated Cantonese words, idiomatic and idiosyncratic metaphors: “English [that] swayed like a willow in a typhoon” (38), and even typhoons themselves. The ideologies of language are also at play here: English is at times merely a tool, but also someone’s status symbol, yet the embodiment of another’s aspirations.
Thematically, the stories display the general inclusiveness of Hong Kong through dissonance. People of various colours and occupations, the LGBTQ+ community and ghosts co-exist. Nonetheless, when individual voices reach the foreground, there is still confusion, self-consciousness and tension over identity. Christina Liang’s “A View to Die For” features an American-born Chinese lady who, despite having resided in Hong Kong for over a decade, still lingers in the liminal space between both races (149), yet finds it funny that her white husband has yellow fever but no interest in learning Chinese (150–151). In Tiffany Hawk’s “You Deserve More,” an American woman feels like “an obvious outsider” and “a twinge of guilt thinking how the city’s character is rooted in colonialism,” even though she knows that she is “part of the history and social fabric of Hong Kong,” while heading to Lan Kwai Fong (76). In Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang’s “One Country, Two People,” a British woman is “brightly” saying “Happy handover!” (118) to her mainland Chinese husband, while “wiping away the tears with the back of [her] hand” as she watches the live broadcast of the ceremony (120). Seemingly in response to these struggles, two local prostitutes from separate stories sometimes share similar views of their diverse clients, highlighting their memories of foreign ones. All the alienated/alienating viewpoints, however, are marked by the authors’ empathy and a sense of openness – everybody yet nobody can have the last word.
As the flaneur-like narrators roam the city, one can observe echoes among their alternative perspectives of Hong Kong. Marshall Moore’s protagonist in “This Quintessence of Dust” remarks that “where the rest of Hong Kong defines itself by its chaos and right angles, Cheung Chau is about silence and curves” (42); the narrator of Charles Philipp Martin’s “Ticket Home,” with his view of the bustling Mong Kok as “a black hole of compressed humanity” (132) would probably agree. In the same neighbourhood of “a full spectrum of human activities” in James Tam’s “Phoenix Moon”, another character compares chickens in cages to “proud aristocrats queuing for the guillotine” (97). It seems as if the tales are constantly in dialogue with one another, establishing yet also challenging grand narratives with their simultaneity. To borrow the words of the storyteller in Xu Xi’s “TST,” they “have so many middles there are no beginnings” (39).
In short, Hong Kong Noir is a heart-stopping but spellbinding account of the glamorous city’s repressed side. Most secrets come at a cost, however; this anthology of confessions is no exception. Whether you are accustomed to Hong Kong or not, the book will give you visions of the city that you can hardly “unsee”: it would be difficult not to picture the “blood on the steps” when walking in Central, or wonder which shop in Yau Ma Tei was robbed as you stroll past jewellery shops, or shudder at the thought of kamikaze caves while watching young children paddle on pebbled beaches. And maybe you did once descry a finely sliced left foot teetering on the ledge of the Star Ferry Pier before it was discovered – didn’t you? Well, at least you now know about parts of what you will find in the assortment; but if you are an “adrenaline junkie” (25) like Choi in the first story, you would willingly succumb to the dangerously delectable magnetism of this volume.
Liz Wan Yuen-Yuk is currently a part-time lecturer at the Open University of Hong Kong. She holds an MPhil in English (Literary Studies) from The Chinese University of Hong Kong; her research interests include 18th–19th century British literature, comparative literature, literary translation, etc. She has also written for CHA: An Asian Literary Journal and Hong Kong Studies, and is presently planning to pursue a PhD in English.