Ray Hecht is an American writer based in Shenzhen who I know through his personal blog about his varied experience in China’s metropolis of the moment (and perhaps future). He’s lived in both Guangzhou and Shenzhen actually, and he put his abundant Cantonese experience into use in a recently released novel South China Morning Blues, for which I gladly put aside my China cynicism and dug into to review.
SCMB (as I’ll call the novel from this point) takes place in Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, the 3 giants of the Pearl River Delta. While it is China’s manufacturing powerhouse and the world’s factory, this region is rarely featured in China literature, which often are set in Beijing or Shanghai. It can be easy to forget that South China, specifically Guangdong, was among the first Chinese regions to come into contact with Europeans through trade starting from the 17th century.
Location aside, the book is also unique in featuring a dozen main characters, each named for a different animal of the Chinese zodiac, each trying to make a living somehow in the fast-paced delta region. There are local and Western characters, the former divided into Cantonese and non-Cantonese Chinese, and the latter including white, black, and American-Chinese, presenting an interesting mishmash of perspectives. There are the newbies looking to get started in China, the ambitious striving to make their mark while others just try to get by.
However, having multiple main characters does present a problem, at least it did for me, of having to keep track of who is who, which is not easy sometimes. The constant shifts from one character to another also make it challenging to retain interest in the more compelling characters.
The book is more skewed towards expat characters and their perspectives, though one of the more interesting characters is a spunky Chinese artist in Guangzhou. Hecht also does well to include an African hustler, who whilst often ignored or derided, is a solid part of the foreign presence in China.
Though SCMB is mostly focused on outsiders, it is not overburdened with cliched portrayals of the quirkiness of China as some books written by expats tend to be. The book pulls no punches with unscrupulous aspects of life in China like dishonest employees or the trend of mistresses, nor the shallower aspects of life as a China expat (some of which could have applied to me when I lived there).
SCMB starts off fast in Shenzhen, moves on to Guangzhou and concludes in HK. The plot slows down a bit in Guangzhou and I found it less interesting, but perhaps this is a reflection of reality in those two cities. Shenzhen is a burgeoning tech center and still-booming metropolis, while Guangzhou, though the capital of Guangdong and boasting a long history, might be showing her age a bit. The characters in Shenzhen are mainly into having a good time and making money, the Guangzhou characters are more pensive and discuss topics like the cultural characteristics of Chinese cities and white (expat) privilege. The final part, Hong Kong, goes by rather hastily, with business deals and leisure, which probably sums up Hong Kong.
The writing is clear and the plot flows well, despite the constant shifting from one character to another, and most of the characters, from both Shenzhen and Guangzhou, are brought together in a surprising and slightly tragic finale.
The book’s title may bring to mind a sense of melancholy, but for some of the characters, life in South China marks a sense of triumph.
SCMB is an entertaining book that provides a fascinating look at a booming, but often overlooked part of China.