Chris Maden reviews a gentle comedy set in the run-up to Hong Kong’s 1997 ‘handover’ to China…
Stephen Griffiths, The Kowloon English Club (Blacksmith Books, 2020), 270pp.
Twenty-three years can seem a short time, yet a sizeable proportion of today’s Hongkongers have no memories of colonial Hong Kong and the run-up to the handover. The Kowloon English Club is an insightful yarn set in that period.
In the pre-handover days, British nationals could turn up in Hong Kong without a work visa and find work. Joe Walsh is one of the many who does, in his case after backpacking around India. He arrives with almost no money, finds his girlfriend is not waiting but has dumped him, and is forced to seek accommodation in a squalid hotel room.
Desperate, Joe starts a career that begins by delivering sandwiches, but switches to teaching in a cram school – only to find himself surrounded by people as desperate as he is. Some of his fellow teachers use the school as a recruiting ground for sexual partners; the students are desperate to learn English and, in some cases, to date teachers or find a Westerner and make an exit; the school is desperate for teachers but gives them neither materials nor training. Here is the result:
“It’s very simple. Seafood, see food; that’s the joke. Why can’t you get it?”
It was left to a no-nonsense local girl to explain. “But sir,” she started, wrinkling her brow in earnest, but speaking in a clear, authoritative and ultimately damning voice. “Of course we understand. It is just that . . . it is not funny. That’s all.”
Joe navigates this minefield as best he can. He starts to find satisfaction in his work and to find companionship in his colleagues and students. He falls into what he thinks is a not-quite-on, not-quite-off relationship with a student, Wendy, only to find that she’s more emotionally involved than he realizes.
He is able to upgrade his accommodation, from a noisy room to a dormitory shared by others teaching English or otherwise making ends meet by casual work in the shadows of Hong Kong – a doorman at one of the nightclubs, barmaids, construction workers and the like – and the rivalries, friendships and crowded conditions start to accumulate. In one telling scene, it turns out that one of his roommates is a crook and, in a nice twist, a crook twice over.
A pivotal point, though, is when Fraser dies. Fraser is an older teacher with a past, who takes his duties seriously. He is fanatical about grammar, but the students are not. As a result, his classes (the students self-select) are empty and bring in no money. He has a row with the owner of the school, which results in Fraser’s death – though whether from suicide or a bender gone wrong, we are never quite sure.
Fraser’s funeral catapults Joe into the lives of the other teachers, and this turns into a final, downwards spiral.
The Kowloon English Club ultimately is a book about desperate relationships in a transient city. As such, it could be depressing, but is instead by turns affectionate and funny. Although a novel, it has the pace and voice of a memoir. In this case, that pace and voice works: it is a book set in a certain place at a certain time and, as such, the underplayed narrative tension of a memoir allows that time and place to breathe in a way that a stronger narrative structure could not. The characters are well-delineated, the central character’s observations and conflicts come out, and the supporting characters add texture. I am not a fan of accents in dialogue, but the author pulls them off well and I found myself chuckling despite my predispositions.
The Hong Kong of literature is too full of the great, the glamourous and the urban myth: from James Clavell’s Noble House to John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy, the emphasis tends to be on taipans, tycoons and gangsters. That romanticised Hong Kong is all well and good, but there’s as much grunge and squalor in Hong Kong as there is glister and splendour. The Kowloon English Club balances the literary scales in with a splash of humour dropped in.