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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #42 (October 14-21,
2003), page 17.
Hong Kong, city of mystery and contradiction
By John Lanchester
Penguin Books, 2003
Paperback, 342 pages, $14.00
By Mike Street
Special to the Asian Reporter
Since its foundation by the British during the nineteenth-century Opium Wars, the port of Hong Kong has straddled the line between East and West, between law and corruption, between what seems to be and that which truly is. Even today, after returning to Chinese sovereignty, it remains a maverick city, neither truly independent nor truly Chinese, both Communist and capitalist, a city of romance, intrigue, danger, and endless possibility. Thus it is the perfect setting for John Lanchester’s latest book, Fragrant Harbor, an historical epic that follows the progress of the city through the tumultuous twentieth century, as it passes from British colonial rule to the Japanese during World War II, returns to the British, and finally devolves to Chinese authority in 1997.
The book’s title comes from a multilingual, ironic pun on "Hong Kong" — the Chinese heung gong means "fragrant harbor." This refers literally to the harbor water itself, brackish and filthy from centuries of oceangoing commerce and congested living conditions. But in a larger sense, it describes the fetid culture of Hong Kong, which Lanchester presents as inherently corrupt and superficial, a place that seems to have no heart, no direction, no sense of value for anything beyond its price tag.
Lanchester tells the interwoven stories of four Hong Kong residents — two British expatriates and two Chinese nationals — as they struggle to succeed in this chaotic and confusing city. Each character narrates a different section of the book, but they are sections of varying length; most of the novel is told from the perspective of the two British subjects. For this reason, the reader feels very much like a colonist, on the outside looking in, and we are just as puzzled by the subtleties of Hong Kong’s hidden power structure as they are.
The central character in the novel is Tom Stewart, an Englishman who sails to Hong Kong in 1935 and builds his fortunes at the landmark Empire Hotel. During the Japanese occupation, he joins the resistance, and spends several years in an internment camp as a result. After the war, his business interests flourish, even as he comes into inevitable conflict with the powerful Chinese triads.
The other expatriate is Dawn Stone, who provides us with a more modern perspective of Hong Kong in the uncertain years before the handover to the Chinese. She has traveled to the city to work as a magazine reporter, and soon finds herself drawn into a powerful and corrupt business interest.
Sister Maria, a Chinese nun who is Stewart’s friend throughout the course of the novel, narrates the shortest section, a letter in which she reveals one of the main plot twists to Stewart. The final part of the novel is seen through the eyes of Matthew Ho, a Chinese entrepreneur trying to navigate the corrupt maze of Asian politics, who soon crosses paths with Stewart, Stone, and Sister Maria.
Lanchester generally does a wonderful job of using these characters and sections to hide and reveal elements of the plot, incorporating tidbits of history and culture along the way, showing the different perspectives from which his characters view Hong Kong. His prose is spare but sharp, and his portraits of each character are clearly drawn. In spite of their very different identities and personalities, we feel compassion for each of them as they wrestle with the paradoxical paradise of Hong Kong. Unlike other historical fiction, where the action is intercut with long digressions explaining significant events, Lanchester teaches us about Hong Kong without our really knowing about it, both through the action of the novel and the accumulation of concise details.
Ultimately, of course, all four characters find their destinies intertwined, and it is here that the novel is at its weakest. The two central events that bring the various characters together seem contrived and leave the reader feeling slightly cheated and manipulated. Early in the novel, Stewart learns Cantonese from Sister Maria as the result of her shipboard wager on the way to Hong Kong. Even though it feels like a contrivance, the high stakes of the wager and Stewart’s frantic efforts to learn this difficult language build a small amount of tension on the long voyage. But this tension is quickly dissipated when Stewart learns, moments before its consummation, that the bet has been called off. Stewart feels cheated at this turn of events, but the reader feels more so; we have all been carried along on a pretense created in order to teach the main character Cantonese.
The plot’s most significant twist — which shall not be revealed here — comes so completely from the blue that we also share in the surprise of the characters involved. Here, too, the reader feels resentful and manipulated, for Lanchester has withheld the secret of this event without a hint or suggestion when it occurs, long before its revelation to the characters and the reader. The event is so important to the characters involved that it is difficult to imagine that they never refer to it, privately or publicly.
In the context of the rest of the book, which is otherwise engaging and well written, plot quibbles such as this can certainly be overlooked. It is a page-turner of the best kind, where the characters and descriptions are more lively and engaging than the plot, and where the reader is transported to a mystical place quite outside of everyday Western experience. In the end, it may be that Lanchester’s behind-the-scenes plot manipulation is meant to mirror Hong Kong’s own mysterious and fantastical workings, where nothing is what it seems and the worm of corruption eats at the heart of everyone.