Hong Kong is an anachronism, a vestige of an obsolete imperialist system, an insult to China. It’s also a city of refuge, a success story, andthanks to its limited exposure to Maoism’s ideological whimsa place that’s more Chinese than China. Or at least it will be for a few more days. After that, predicts Paul Theroux’s Kowloon Tong, comes the deluge.
Theroux’s book is not a political tract, or even one of the travel books for which he’s better known than for his fiction. It’s a murder mystery, a quick read with impressive propulsion. Yet the book is more than an entertainment. It’s not a whodunit but a who’s-gonna-do-it, and the answer is all the more chilling for being inevitable.
The tale recounts the conflict between two outsiders, both of whom feel they have a claim on the same buildingand, by extension, the whole territory. One is Neville “Bunt” Mullard, a 43-year-old businessman who has lived his entire life in the narrow corridors of Hong Kong open to the English speaker. He has no intention of surrendering his British passport, but he and his mother Betty have tentatively decided to stay in Hong Kong after what they call “the Chinese take-away.” Though not exactly happy, Bunt is settled in his routine: English breakfasts and dinners with Betty in their home on Victoria Peak; lunchtime and early-evening sandwiches, beer, and casual sex in the strip bars of Kowloon Tong and Mong Kok, neighborhoods that are near the tourist precincts of Tsim Sha Tsui but are seldom visited by Westerners.
Bunt’s antagonist is Mr. Hung, who speaks English too well to be a Hong Kong Chinese, and whose other language is Mandarin. He’s a well-connected neo-businessman from the mainland, a take-charge kind of guy from the country that’s going to take charge. Hung’s life and interests are largely unknown, but there are suggestions that he is, literally as well as figuratively, bloodthirsty.
The battleground is Imperial Stitching, a small clothing factory in Kowloon Tong co-founded by Bunt’s late father and his Chinese partner, Mr. Chuck. (Symbolically, Kowloon Tong is also the name of the station that’s the southern terminus of the train line to mainland China.) Hung wants to buy the factory, of which the Mullards have just gained full control upon the death of Mr. Chuck. Bunt refuses, but Hung will not accept the rebuff. He’s a new breed of gangster”tong” means “pond,” but also “gang”from a country that has recently added capitalism to its inventory of barbarisms.
The Massachusetts-bred Theroux used to live in England and has traveled extensively in China, and those who’ve read his crabby books on the respective countries, The Kingdom by the Sea and Riding the Iron Rooster, may wonder how he’ll manage to take sides. At first, he doesn’t: With their description of the carefully simulated Englishness of the Mullards’ home (even named “Albion Cottage”), Kowloon Tong’s opening pages reveal a quiet horror of Anglo fustiness. Subsequent passages, such as the observation that “to the Chinese, the visible world was a spittoon,” recall Rooster’s distaste for China’s cold, drabness, and filth.
Theroux’s solution is neatly allegorical. Like the U.K. itself, which only began upholding Hong Kong’s freedoms in recent years, the exploitative Bunt becomes a protector in the last hours of British rule over Hong Kong. The transformation comes when Hung, who personifies the mainland Chinese menace to Bunt’s business, also threatens Mei-Ping, one of Bunt’s employees. A pretty young refugee from the mainland, Mei-Ping has laconically become Bunt’s whore, trading sex for gifts and money. (In an attempt at keeping her dignity, she professes to prefer the former.) With Mei-Ping’s future in jeopardy, Bunt suddenly decides that he loves her and wants to protect her. But it may not be within his power to do so.
This crisp novella, with its small cast of characters, is a natural for movie adaptation. (It’s as taut and ominous as Theroux’s Doctor Slaughter, which was filmed, inadequately, as Half Moon Street.) The only problem for Hollywood would be the lack of sympathetic characters: Bunt is not much of a hero, Mei-Ping has too small a part, and Betty is almost as scary as Hung. As for the fellow members of Bunt’s gentleman’s cluball renouncing their British or American passports (and swearing allegiance to places like Belize, Cape Verde, and Guinea-Bissau) so they can stay and join the feeding frenzythey’re like something out of a white-collar version of Natural Born Killers.
The real murderers, however, are just north of the border. Theroux makes that clear in a description of a Kowloon Tong apartment that evokes (without ever mentioning any of them) the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and Tiananmen Square: “The evidence was not in the room, the evidence was missingthat stark neatness was the proof that a bloody crime had been committed. The same was true of China. The look of the apartment was the spare look of China, a place that has been scoured and simplified by chaosupheaval, terror, mass murder, war.”
Most murder mysteries are fantasies of human omniscience: They pretend that everything can be explained. Kowloon Tong has no such illusions, so perhaps it would be better to describe the novel as a ghost story, a genre with a venerable Chinese tradition. Certainly the book has an eerie mood, halfway between The Economist and The Twilight Zone, that’s best expressed by Mei-Ping’s nightmare of public executions at the Happy Valley race course. If Imperial Stitching is a metaphor for the entire colony, however, then the final chapter’s description of its fate is an anticipatory requiem: a somber farewell to a world, a way of life, and a people about to vanish forever.CP